A highly transmissible coronavirus variant that was first identified in the U.K. is spreading rapidly in the U.S. and likely to become the dominant strain circulating domestically in March unless steps are taken to slow it, federal health authorities said. Health officials called Friday for increasing measures like wearing masks and social distancing to curb the spread of the more contagious variant. Otherwise, it will intensify the squeeze on already-overwhelmed hospitals.

A year after a new coronavirus was detected in Wuhan, China, the pandemic it spawned has reached a perilous point. There are now vaccines to stop it, but their rollout in the U.S. has been slow and new, faster-spreading variants of the virus are now threatening surges in illness.

The variant, known as B.1.1.7, had infected at least 76 people in 12 states as of Jan. 13 and threatens to worsen the pandemic in the U.S., the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a report modeling the strain’s potential impact. “We expect these numbers to rise in the coming weeks,” Jay Butler, the CDC’s deputy director for infectious diseases, said in an interview.

The variant could fuel exponential growth in new cases, becoming the dominant strain by late March if more public-health measures aren’t put in place to stop it, said Michael Johansson, a biologist and modeler for the CDC’s Covid-19 response.

While the new variant doesn’t appear to cause more severe illness, it is more contagious than the currently dominating strain of the coronavirus, the CDC said. That means it could lead to more hospitalizations and deaths by infecting more people overall, the agency said, exacerbating pressures on health-care systems that are already at or near capacity. U.S. hospitalizations totaled 128,947 as of Thursday, the lowest level since Jan. 4, according to the Covid Tracking Project. Intensive-care units, though, remain under stress, with 23,891 patients. The number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs across the country has surpassed 23,000 every day since Dec. 29, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

The U.S. daily death toll again surpassed 3,000 on Thursday, with more than 3,700 fatalities recorded, according to Johns Hopkins University. So far, more than 390,000 deaths in the U.S. have been attributed to Covid-19. The U.S. reported more than 229,000 new coronavirus cases for Thursday, the 10th consecutive day the figure has topped 200,000, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. has a short window of time to step up measures such as social distancing and wearing masks to prevent B.1.1.7 from spreading widely, the CDC said. Such precautions would also buy time for vaccination campaigns to start having an effect on transmission rates, the agency said.

People should be wearing masks, keeping at least 6 feet apart from others, avoiding crowds, washing hands and getting vaccinated, the CDC said. While the new variant is believed to be 50% more transmissible than the currently dominant strain in the U.S., agency experts said they believe the existing prevention strategies work.

‘If you’re not wearing a mask or if you’re getting sort of lax about it…I really encourage you to wear the mask.’

— Jay Butler, CDC deputy director for infectious diseases

“If you’re not wearing a mask or if you’re getting sort of lax about it because you’re getting tired of wearing the mask, I really encourage you to wear the mask,” Dr. Butler said. He urged the same stamina in avoiding gatherings with people outside one’s own household: “This is not the time to let up by any means.”

“It doesn’t mean that businesses need to be shut down or things like that, but it does mean that we have to take steps to be able to protect ourselves and limit our contacts with others,” Dr. Butler said.

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