An epidemiologist who advised President Joe Biden's transition on the Covid-19 crisis warned on Sunday of a looming wave of infections and said the U.S. should adjust its vaccination strategy in order to save lives.
"We do have to call an audible, I think it's no doubt about it," Dr. Michael Osterholm said on NBC's "Meet the Press," using a metaphor drawn from football to describe changing plans on the fly.
Osterholm said that the administration should attempt to administer as many first doses of vaccine as it can, particularly to those over 65-years-old, ahead of a potential surge in cases linked to mutations found overseas.
The two vaccines approved by federal regulators in the U.S. are administered in two doses given three weeks apart. Osterholm suggested that his plan might require some second doses to be delayed.
"The fact is that the surge that is likely to occur with this new variant from England is going to happen in the next six to 14 weeks. And, if we see that happen, which my 45 years in the trenches tell me we will, we are going to see something like we have not seen yet in this country," Osterholm said.
"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 deaths that are going to occur in the weeks ahead," Osterholm added. He said that data supported the idea that those who receive their second dose later may have better outcomes.
The coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom has been associated with more rapid transmission and may be more deadly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned that the variant may be the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.
Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He served on the Biden transition team's Covid-19 advisory board, which dissolved when Biden was inaugurated earlier this month.
The White House did not return a request for comment on Osterholm's remarks Sunday.
The number of daily new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations has been dropping sharply in recent weeks, though the totals remain high. The monthly death toll from the virus hit a record in January.
As a seven-day average, the U.S. is facing more than 3,000 deaths daily on average from the virus and more than 150,000 infections, according to a CNBC analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.
Osterholm suggested that the declining number of cases and hospitalizations may be providing a false sense of security, and that those figures would rise once more transmissible mutations spread more widely throughout the country.
"You and I are sitting on this beach, where it's 70 degrees, perfectly blue skies, gentle breeze, but I see that hurricane — Category 5 or higher — 450 miles off shore," Osterholm told host Chuck Todd. "Telling people to evacuate on the nice, blue sky day is going to be hard. But I can also tell you that the hurricane is coming."
The federal vaccine rollout, which got off to a rocky start, has sped up in recent weeks. Nearly 25 million people have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to CDC data, with about 5 million receiving both doses. Biden has pledged to hit a goal of 100 million doses administered within his first 100 days.
Subscribe to CNBC Pro for the TV livestream, deep insights and analysis on how to invest during the next presidential term.