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"The perfect storm": Doctor warns spring break could usher in another COVID-19 surge

Doctor on risk of spring break COVID surge
Doctor on potential COVID-19 surge from spring break travelers 06:35

While the U.S. COVID-19 vaccine rollout has seen milestones in recent weeks as inoculations steadily increase, the pandemic is not over yet. Doctors and public health officials are warning Americans — particularly young adults gearing up for spring break — to slow down and think responsibly.

"It's kind of like the perfect storm — you're going to have a mix of alcohol, young kids and a potentially deadly virus that don't all mix well," Dr. Ron Elfenbien said on CBSN Monday. "Kids are going to be kids. They want to go out and party and have a good time and drink and fraternize and associate with each other and be in close proximity with each other. Obviously the problem with that is we are in the middle of a global pandemic."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned about the risks as some states begin to relax pandemic-related health restrictions. 

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a March 1 press conference that "we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained" by dropping measures like mask mandates amid the spread of more infectious COVID-19 variants.

Elfenbien expressed concern over how one of those strains will mix with spring break travelers.

"The problem is that there is this variant we have been talking about sometimes, this B.1.1.7 variant, the U.K. variant, that is 50-60% more infectious than the 'usual' variant we have been talking about for so long," he explained. 

The B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant, first detected in the United Kingdom, has since spread to at least 49 U.S. states and jurisdictions and accounts for more than 3,000 confirmed cases, according to the CDC — though the actual number is likely higher.

Another variant first seen in South Africa, which may be deadlier than the earlier strain of the virus, accounts for about 80 reported U.S. cases.

Florida — where both variants have been detected — never instituted a statewide mask mandate and has lifted restrictions on restaurants and other businesses. The state's tourism industry normally brings in billions of dollars each year, but dropped by more than 50% last year. As a popular spring break destination, travelers there could easily help fuel further spread of the virus. 

A study published in the Social Science Resource Network in November 2020 concluded that "estimates imply that counties with more early spring break students had a higher growth rate of cases than counties with fewer early spring break students."

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber warned tourists in a "CBS This Morning" segment, "If you're coming here to get crazy, go somewhere else, you're going to be arrested."

The popular South Florida spring break destination has stepped up its police presence, banned open alcohol containers and set capacity limits on its beaches in an attempt to mitigate the crowds seen at last year's holiday period. 

Though some visitors might feel confident they can relax restrictions because they were vaccinated, Elfenbein is urging people to remain cautious.

"There is so much fatigue and people are so happy. You see on Facebook everyone is posting, 'I got my shot!' They are super excited — and rightly so. But it is not a get out of jail free card," he said. " Everybody just has to wait until everyone else has been vaccinated."

He specified that in gatherings of small groups of fully vaccinated individuals, it's likely fine to "take off your mask," which the CDC confirmed in its latest guidance

However, those who have not been vaccinated should wait, he said, and experts say everyone should continue to practice social distancing and mask-wearing in public places.

"Because you have been vaccinated does not mean that you cannot become infected with the virus," he explained. "What it really means is that you will not die from the virus and you will not get particularly sick, but it does not mean that you can't spread it to other people. So, just because you have your vaccine does not mean that you can't infect other people."

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