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'Act now': Doctors urge leaders impose COVID restrictions again before UK variant becomes dominant

Scientists estimate the new variant will drive Florida's COVID-19 curve much more steeply and cases will put pressure on the state's health care system.

TAMPA, Fla — With international travel restrictions possibly being dropped, public health experts are warning we need to be careful.

"It's risky. There's no question about that," said Dr. Jay Wolfson with USF Public Health.

The public health expert says COVID-19 mutations from abroad would have more of a chance to come into the U.S. if there were any changes to the current travel rules for international travelers.

"It's like bringing people from California, where the virus is raging the same way, and saying, 'Make sure you get tested before you come to Tampa and hopefully that it'll catch it if you got it.' It's really no different," Wolfson said.

President Donald Trump announced pandemic travel restrictions will be lifted for Europe and Brazil on Jan. 26, but incoming White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Joe Biden's administration will make sure restrictions remain in place given reports of more contagious varients.

In a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, top scientists say a new highly contagious variant from the U.K. will become the dominant mutation of the virus in the U.S. by March. 

"We are going to be in trouble," Dr. Thomas Unnasch with USF Public Health said.

Unnasch runs a USF lab testing for COVID-19 mutations. He expects Florida's COVID-19 cases will peak at a higher rate, despite vaccines being available. Right now, 60-70 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. Once the U.K. variant is dominant, 75-80 percent will need the shot.

"This new variant by driving that curve and the increase much more steeply is going to put a lot of pressure on our health care system I'm afraid over the next six to eight weeks or so. We'd have 740,000 cases after three weeks. Those 740,000 cases would translate to about 32,000 hospitalizations, and instead of 4,700 deaths, 11,500 deaths," Unnasch said.

That's why doctors are calling on our leaders to do something now, saying we need to consider mitigation efforts like those that were in place last summer.

"It would really behoove our county officials and the local officials to start considering perhaps re-imposing some of the restrictions, in terms of capacities in restaurants, closing bars and clubs. We could be facing a real, real problem in three or four weeks if we don't really act now," Unnasch said.

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