NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A more contagious strain of COVID-19 could sweep through the country and become the dominate variant of the virus by March, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re in the top three, four, five states in the country as regards to new cases everyday,” says Vanderbilt University Medical Center Infectious Disease Expert Dr. William Schaffner.

It’s not an ideal spot to be in, he says, especially when a new and more transmissible strain of SARS-CoV-2 known as B.1.1.7 spreads through the country.

“It’s going to drive more people into the hospital. And when that happens, we’ll get an increase in deaths again,” says Dr. Schaffner.

Hospitals already struggle to adequately staff personnel needed to treat current COVID-19 patients. ICU capacity for the state consistently sits in single digits. A more contagious strain, leading the charge, could be devastating.

We asked Dr. Schaffner if our hospitals could handle that.

“Only with great difficulty can our hospitals be able to handle that,” Schaffner responds. “We’re already stretched here in Nashville, in Middle Tennessee, and throughout our state.”

There is no evidence the B.1.1.7 strain causes more severe symptoms and current vaccines seem to work against the variant.

“Let’s stay tuned, because that could change in the future,” warns Dr. Schaffner.

Just as it took time to learn about SARS-CoV-2, doctors need time to learn about the mutation. But what both the CDC and Dr. Schaffner do know is increased mask wearing is a must, and speeding up vaccinations is the best defense in slowing the spread.

“I don’t think any of us have been satisfied with how quickly the vaccine roll out took place. We have to be more determined. We have to have clinics that are open longer and on the weekends. And we need a steady predictable supply of vaccine.”

He urges Tennesseans to do their part and continue to social distance in the final stretch of the pandemic.

As of January 18, 14 states have reported cases of the variant. The CDC believes B.1.1.7 is more widespread than reported.