It's likely the U.S. will see an uptick in COVID-19 cases similar to the current increase in Europe as a result of the extremely contagious BA.2 variant.
In a number of countries, including Britain, France and Germany, case numbers are climbing as the subvariant takes hold.
"If we are going to see an uptick, we should start seeing it within the next week or so," said top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, M.D., Tuesday in an online interview with The Washington Post.
"We generally lag about three weeks or so behind the U.K. in the dynamics of what goes on with the outbreak.
"The extent of it and the degree to which it impacts seriousness of disease like hospitalizations and death remains to be seen," said Fauci, the Biden administration’s top adviser on the pandemic.
The same conditions that are responsible for the upticks in coronavirus cases in the U.K. and Europe can be seen here in the U.S., he said.
There's an increasing dominance of the BA.2 variant, which is more transmissible, he said, combined with a relaxation of restrictions, particularly the requirements to wear masks in indoor settings.
"Third, there's a waning of immunity. So all of those three things, which are comparable in the U.K. to here, makes me feel that we'll see an increased uptick," Fauci said.
He added, "What the U.K. is not seeing—and that's the good news—is an increase of severity or an increase in the use of intensive care unit beds or an increase in the all‑cause mortality, which means that despite the fact that there are cases going up, there does not appear to be any increase in the degree of severity of the outbreak."
About 65% of Americans are fully vaccinated, with about 75% having received at least one dose.
"The issue is that we have about 50% of the people who are eligible to be boosted, have not yet gotten boosted. So we could do much better in mitigating against any effects of this upsurge," Fauci said.
Overall COVID infections are still declining in the U.S. from January's record highs. But BA.2 variant infections are making up a greater share of U.S. case numbers. About 1 in 3 COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are now caused by the BA.2 omicron sub-variant of the coronavirus, according to government data released Tuesday, Reuters reported.
The subvariant accounted for 35% of U.S. infections for the week ending March 19, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But reimposing COVID restrictions or lockdowns will be a hard sell to a pandemic-weary public. "I don’t think there’s much stomach for people to all of a sudden turn around even if there is an uptick," he said. "I think that the desire to continue to go along in a way that is normal, as it were, I think there's going to be a lot of inertia, if not active pushback in people. If it is required to increase or go back to some of the mitigation, I think it's going to be a tough time convincing people to do that."
Fauci said the U.S. "can’t claim absolute victory at this point."
"They’re still viral dynamics. We still have a highly transmissible virus among us, particularly the BA.2 which has a greater degree of transmissibility than an already highly transmissible BA.1, which is the original omicron. So the advice is: Proceed with life as normally as you possibly can, but be prepared that we might need to make modifications if things change," he noted.
He urged Congress to make continued investments to support COVID resources, such as booster shots and treatments.
An aid package in Congress is stalled, even as Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials warned that it does not have enough money to buy a fourth round of booster doses for all Americans if Congress does not pass more relief funding.
HHS had asked Congress for more than $20 billion in relief funding, but that has been whittled down to roughly $15 billion.
However, lawmakers did not include the funding in a must-pass omnibus spending bill earlier this month after demands from Republicans that the COVID-19 relief dollars be offset by other cuts. Republicans have questioned the need for more funding and wanted additional details on the money already allocated.
"That's the reason why we're very concerned that with the budget bills, the ominous bills that have come through, that there has been essentially no additional money for COVID-19, which is really extraordinary, particularly given what we've been through," he said.
"The Congress, which has been very generous to us in the past, no doubt about that … please don’t slip and decide we’re done with these strong support of resources for COVID, because COVID is not done with us. So we’ve got to continue to support the things that will continue to get us the interventions and that would continue to prepare us for the next challenge," Fauci said.