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Why Americans should "be very worried" about the COVID variant tearing through Brazil

Brazil's worsening COVID-19 crisis
Deadly variant fuels Brazil's COVID-19 crisis 03:30

Sao Paulo — Brazil's battle against a dangerous coronavirus variant has left its hospitals at breaking point, with new cases skyrocketing and the death toll climbing precipitously. One expert told CBS News that Americans should be "very worried about" the prospect of the mutant virus, or others yet undetected, gaining a foothold on U.S. soil.

The COVID-19 surge in Brazil is being driven both by the highly-infectious P-1 strain that was first detected in that country, and a highly-criticized government response to the pandemic. The variant has already been found in more than half of U.S. states.

As CBS News correspondent Manuel Bojorquez reports, the situation in Brazil's biggest city, Sao Paulo, and across the country, is dire. When the P-1 variant started taking hold last month, hospital intensive care units in more than half of Brazil's states were already at 90% capacity, or more.

CBS News witnessed firsthand how the situation appears to be getting even worse, pushing Brazil's robust health care system to the brink. Every single patient at Sao Paulo's Hospital Geral de Vila Penteado suffers from COVID-19. There's no room for any others.

Brazil could face deadliest month as COVID variant spreads 03:22

De Jesus told Bojorquez that in her experience, fewer than half of the patients she's treating are likely to recover from the disease. Surprisingly, she said more and more of those patients are in their 20's, 30's and 40's.

Unlike ICUs in the U.S., the wards at her hospital are open, with no barriers between patients. It feels like a worst-case scenario for the medics trying desperately to save lives. Bojorquez watched as people were intubated to be put on ventilators, while in another room, a patient was given chest compressions. It's a daily struggle that haunts those working at the facility, and countless others across Brazil.

"The majority of the cases, the last thing they see is me, the nurses," de Jesus said.

Scientists believe the P-1 variant is fueling the surge. Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience at Duke University's School of Medicine, told CBS New that the strain is two-and-a-half times more easily transmitted from person to person, and that's a concern for everyone, even outside Brazil's borders.

"If I were talking to someone in Oklahoma, I would tell him or her to be very worried about it," Nicolelis told Bojorquez. "Because if Brazil is out of control, the world will be out of control in a few weeks. Because variants that are brewing here every day, every week… they will escape." 

How do coronavirus variants form and will the current vaccines work against them? 13:37

He said he spoke out about the worsening in threat in Brazil months ago, but few listened — most notably President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been criticized for downplaying the pandemic and fighting restrictions put in place by some governors, including Sao Paulo's.

"We are fighting against two viruses at this moment, the coronavirus and 'Bolsonorovirus,'" Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria told Bojorquez.

Doria has drawn the ire of Bolsonaro's supporters, but he believes the limited restrictions he's been able to enforce in Brazil's most populous state — home to more than 46 million people — including closing shopping malls, have started to show results.

But he said the measures he's able to take without the national government coming on board simply aren't enough to combat the health crisis.

"We need, at this moment, to be united against the virus, not divided, and we are divided," he said. "We are advocating [for a] lockdown right now. We are in the red phase at this moment. It's a lockdown, a local lockdown, to orient people to stay home at this time. Please, stay home."

Brazil's COVID infections and deaths surge as variants grow dominant 01:53

Brazil's Health Ministry says roughly 3% of the country's population has been fully vaccinated. The country is currently using two vaccines not yet approved for use in the U.S., but the drugs most widely-used in the U.S. are showing mixed results in protecting against the P-1 variant. 

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