As the Delta variant of Covid-19 pushes up new infection case counts across the country, public health experts are urging people to get vaccinated — not just for themselves, but for everyone around them.
“Somehow there has been this understanding that vaccination is just about you, and yes — it’s true, vaccination, of course, protects the individual very well against getting Covid-19 and getting severely ill,” she told CNN Saturday. “But we also get vaccinated to protect people around us … because we know that there is a risk of breakthrough infections.”
Experts have noted clear links between unvaccinated populations and higher incidence of Covid-19 cases, particularly of the highly contagious Delta variant.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who heads the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday that more than 9 million people live in counties where cases are rising and where the vaccination rates are lower than 40%.
“Many of these counties are also the same locations where the Delta variant represents the large majority of circulating virus,” she said.
Friday, the US surpassed 20,000 new Covid-19 cases for the fourth day in a row. The last time the country had back-to-back days of cases topping 20,000 was in May.
Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi are hit hard
In Missouri, only about 40% of the population is fully vaccinated, and doctors there say the number of hospital rooms and available equipment is running low, especially as more young people become ill.
“We are seeing more people 30 years and older getting sicker and requiring hospitalization. Also, we have seen that in this wave, each person is getting sicker faster,” said Dr. Mayrol Juarez at Mercy Hospital in Springfield, where they’ve had to bring in ventilators from other hospitals due to the sharp increase in Covid-19 patients there.
The state’s health department estimates more than 70% of the virus circulating in the state is the Delta variant.
About 91% of the ICU patients at Mercy Hospital in Springfield are on ventilators, according to the hospital’s chief administrative officer, Erik Frederick.
“That is shocking to us, to have that kind of number,” he told CNN’s “Newsroom” on Saturday. “These are young patients — you have them in their 20s, 30s, 40s — again, it’s alarming, (and) a direct line to the vaccination rates.”
About 35% of Arkansas’ population is fully vaccinated, according to CDC data, and new daily case numbers have recently climbed back to more than a thousand a day, state health officials said.
“Arkansas is on the upward surge of a third wave of Covid-19 here in our state and it’s tilting towards younger people,” said Dr. Cam Patterson, chancellor for the University of Arkansas for medical sciences. “We’re also seeing breakthrough infections in individuals who are immunocompromised.”
A surge is also alarming officials in Mississippi, where only a third of the population is fully vaccinated.
“We’ve seen almost an entire takeover in the Delta variant,” said State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs.
Case numbers and hospitalizations are trending upward because of the spread of the virus mostly among those who are unvaccinated, State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said.
While the number of deaths hasn’t risen, Byers said they anticipate that to change because death numbers tend to lag behind case numbers.
The state is advising seniors aged 65 and older to avoid mass gatherings until July 26, regardless of vaccination status.
Overall, 47.9% of the US population is fully vaccinated while 20 states have fully vaccinated more than half of their residents.
Will we need a booster?
After Pfizer announced Thursday that it’s working to develop a third vaccine booster shot, questions emerged about the long-term effectiveness of vaccines.
In response, Dr. Anthony Fauci said people should take booster advice from federal health officials.
“Certainly, they need to listen to the CDC and the FDA, the FDA being the regulatory authority that has control over this. And the CDC, in accordance with their advisory committee on immunization practices, will make the recommendation,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“We respect what the pharmaceutical company is doing, but the American public should take their advice from the CDC and the FDA,” he said.
Dr. Peter Hotez, chair of tropical pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital, said the current vaccines offer high protection.
“It looks like the two doses of the current vaccine are pretty robust against the Delta variant,” Hotez said Friday. “So yes, we’ll need a booster, but nothing to worry about right now in terms of vaccination.”
Pfizer said it was seeing waning immunity from its vaccine — manufactured in partnership with BioNTech — and was picking up its efforts to develop a booster shot to offer further protection against variants.
Federal guidance on school in fall encourages in-person learning
Meanwhile, the CDC on Friday said schools should prioritize in-person schooling in the fall but it was crucial to layer safety strategies such as masking and physical distancing, and most importantly, vaccinations for everyone eligible.
Schools that are ready to transition away from pandemic precautions as community transmission reaches low levels should do so gradually, the agency said in a draft of the guidance obtained by CNN.
“If localities decide to remove prevention strategies in schools based on local conditions, they should remove them one at a time and monitor closely (with adequate testing) for any increases in COVID-19 cases before removing the next prevention strategy,” the guidance says, adding that schools need to be transparent with families, staff and the community as they do so.
Fauci agrees, adding that unvaccinated children should wear masks.
“I think that the message from the CDC is clear and I totally agree with them,” Fauci told CNN. “We want all the children back in in-person classes in the fall term.”
Getting more people vaccinated will assist in that effort, many experts say.
“We have to remember that all of us from Little Rock Arkansas to New York City to San Francisco to Boston to Anchorage, we are all in this together,” said Dr. Robert Hopkins, chair of the National Vaccine Committee. “This is an international problem. We need everyone vaccinated, that can be vaccinated.”