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Top epidemiologist says Biden administration needs to focus on first vaccine doses

“The hurricane is coming" Michael Olsterholm said. "We have to call an audible."
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WASHINGTON — Michael Osterholm, a top epidemiologist who advised President Joe Biden’s transition team on the coronavirus pandemic, said Sunday that the U.S. needs to “call an audible” with its vaccination program, prioritizing a rush to give a single dose to as many people as possible ahead of a likely surge of cases attributed to more contagious mutations of the virus.

Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told “Meet the Press” that he expects to see a new surge of infections “in the next six to 14 weeks,” thanks to the spread of new variants like the one first discovered in the United Kingdom. Looking at an increase in hospitalizations in the U.K. during the spread of this new variant, he predicted another surge in the U.S. will usher in “something like we have not seen yet in this country.”

“We still want to get two doses in everyone, but I think right now, in advance of this surge, we need to get as many one-doses in as many people over 65 as we possibly can, to reduce serious illness and death that is going to occur over the weeks ahead,” Osterholm said.

Right now, the two coronavirus vaccines approved for emergency use require two doses spaced out over a few weeks, but studies do show the vaccines provide significant protection after just one dose. A vaccine candidate from Johnson & Johnson, which could be authorized in the coming weeks, requires just one dose.

Olsterholm compared the current situation to tracking a hurricane.

“The hurricane is coming. Because of this surge, we have to call an audible,” he said.

“If we get a number of first doses in people, particularly 65-years-of-age and older, we can really do a lot to reduce the number of serious illnesses and deaths in this next big surge, which is coming.”

The number of daily coronavirus cases has dropped in recent days. After eclipsing 200,000 new cases in 15 of 16 days in early January, the U.S. has reported under 200,000 new cases each day since Jan. 18, according to an NBC News analysis. But new, daily deaths have been near highs in recent days, eclipsing 3,600 in four of the last five days.

Health care workers in America have administered over 30 million vaccinations so far, according to NBC News' vaccination tracker.

President Joe Biden, even before his inauguration, announced a goal to vaccinate 100 million people in 100 days. But America hit that pace in the final days of the Trump administration, and last week, Biden said he believes America can soon administer 1.5 million vaccinations each day, a pace that Bloomberg reports has been met three times in the past week.

Even so, the vaccine rollout has at times been chaotic, with states reporting shortages and many Americans expressing frustration with the availability in their communities. Public health officials are hopeful that new vaccines, like the one being developed by Johnson & Johnson, along with more production of currently available shots, could help speed up the distribution process.