The Biden administration's top public health officials are warning that a highly infectious coronavirus subvariant now spreading in the U.S. could herald the return of COVID-19 restrictions, including mandatory masking or potentially even lockdowns.
U.S. officials are closely monitoring the BA.2 Omicron subvariant's spread in America after this strain of the coronavirus caused a surge of infections in Europe. Authorities in the United Kingdom have estimated that this subvariant spreads 80% faster than the original Omicron strain, although it does not appear to be more likely to cause hospitalization.
Even so, White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci on Thursday warned that Americans are likely to experience a surge in COVID-19 cases just like Europe, and depending on its severity, the government may put some restrictions back in place.
"We generally follow what goes on in the U.K. by about two to three weeks. So we better pay close attention to what's going on there.," Fauci told CNN's Jake Tapper in an interview.
"What they're seeing is an uptick in cases that are related both to the increased transmissibility to the virus, the waning of immunity, but also the fact that they're opening up the way we are here and the way other countries in other parts of Europe and other parts of the world and pulling back on mask mandates and things like that," Fauci said.
He attributed the lifting of coronavirus restrictions to "an uptick in cases," but noted that scientists in Europe are not reporting an increase in severity of disease.
"For example, their ICU bed usage, their intensive care unit bed usage is not up, and the overall mortality, the overall all-cause mortality is actually down," Fauci said. "So it's a very interesting situation where the cases are going up, but it does not at this point in time appear to be any degree of severity."
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky made similar comments Thursday, observing that the spread of BA.2 in Europe indicates that the U.S. is likely to see an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as restrictions intended to slow the spread are ended.
"We're following this very carefully. We might expect as we open up, as well as we relax many of our mitigation strategies, that we may have some increase in cases related to BA.2," she said.
At the end of February, the CDC created a new framework for evaluating the severity of COVID-19 in America, and under that framework the agency determined that about 70% of Americans lived in parts of the country where it was safe to ditch face masks. In accordance with that guidance, many states and localities that were hesitant to drop mask mandates have now done so.
Fauci said the CDC was not wrong to change its guidance, but cautioned that the government must remain "flexible" and adapt to new circumstances in the event a future coronavirus strain proves to be dangerous.
"We need to be flexible, and if in fact we do see a turnaround and a resurgence, we have to be able to pivot and go back to any degree of mitigation that is commensurate with what the situation is," Fauci said.
The pandemic is not over, he warned, and that means COVID-19 restrictions are still on the table if things get worse.
"We can't just say that 'we are done now; we're going to move on.' We've got to be able to be flexible, because we are dealing with a dynamic situation."
He also emphasized the need for people who have been vaccinated to get a booster shot, if they have not already, because of "waning immunity."
"Only about 50 percent of the people who were eligible to be vaccinated have gotten their boost. And we still have only 65 percent of the total population fully vaccinated," Fauci said. " If we want to be able to have a buffer against the possibility of there being a resurgence, there are things that we can do right now about that."