Covid-19 cases have been on the rise as the Delta variant spreads across the US — but areas with low vaccination rates are seeing disproportionately high levels of infection.
All 50 states and Washington, DC, have reported cases of the Delta variant, which is believed to be more transmissible than other strains.
And though experts have stressed vaccines are the best defense and provide strong protection against the variant, parts of the country are still lagging in vaccination rates, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“As a nation, as a whole, we are doing very well. We have … about 50% of the population that is vaccinated,” said director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But we have a big country with disparity in the willingness to be vaccinated.”
Fauci has said this disparity could result in “two Americas” — one where most people are vaccinated and another where low vaccination rates could lead to case spikes.
The holiday weekend highlighted the divide as some regions saw increased Covid-19 infections and others celebrated holiday gatherings with the safety of vaccine protection.
“This is really a day of independence — for folks in the United States who are vaccinated, this is really a holiday that celebrates our independence from the fear and the death and the hardships that so many people in this country have faced,” Medical Analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner told Brian Stelter.
Meanwhile, the South, Southwest and parts of the Midwest are starting to see surges. Florida, in particular, is being hit hard, Reiner noted, with about 17% of all new US cases being reported in the state.
“People will continue to die until we vaccinate everybody,” Reiner said.
The importance of vaccination became especially clear last month, when more than 99% of US Covid-19 deaths were among unvaccinated people, Fauci told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.
White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients told Sunday, “If you’re not vaccinated, you are not protected so we’re going to double down on our efforts to vaccinate millions of more Americans across July and August.”
Renewed debate on masks
In areas with high Covid-19 transmission and low vaccination rates, even vaccinated people may want to wear masks, Fauci said Sunday.
“When I’m in that area where there’s a considerable degree of viral circulation, I might want to go the extra mile to be cautious enough to make sure that I get the extra added level of protection — even though the vaccines themselves are highly effective,” Fauci told NBC.
And while some areas, like Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine have fully vaccinated more than 60% of the their total population against the virus, others are lagging far behind, according to the CDC.
Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi are the furthest behind, with 35.3% or less of their population fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.
“Currently, approximately 1,000 counties in the United States have vaccination coverage of less than 30%. These communities, primarily in the Southeast and Midwest, are our most vulnerable,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Thursday.
“As the Delta variant continues to spread across the country, we expect to see increased transmissions in these communities, unless we can vaccinate more people now.”
In states where about 35% of the population or less is vaccinated, counties or cities could see outbreaks, Fauci said.
Even with the possibility of outbreaks among undervaccinated populations, Reiner said vaccines provide strong enough protection that those who are inoculated shouldn’t need to wear masks, except for those with extenuating circumstances like compromised immune systems.
Vaccination is “the ticket to get your life back,” Reiner said.
For his part, Zients wouldn’t say Sunday if masks should be mandated for vulnerable regions, but said local governments will make their own decisions and the CDC has been clear about who should and should not wear a mask.
Regardless of mandates, former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said Sunday that masks may become normalized for some people looking to protect themselves against respiratory pathogens — be they coronavirus or the flu.
“I think people are going to use them on a voluntary basis,” Gottlieb told CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday. “I think going to work with the sniffles is going to be frowned upon. I think businesses are going to have access to routine testing. I think there might be symptom checks within certain settings.”
A push to get vaccination rates up over the summer
Zients, the White House coronavirus official, said the administration will be increasing efforts this summer to get more people vaccinated so they can return to enjoying life without fear of Covid-19.
President Joe Biden had set a goal to have at least 70% of US adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4. The nation missed that mark by about eight million on Sunday.
The numbers are still ahead of where most people expected they would be, Zients said in defense of the vaccination progress, but added that federal officials will focus on increasing vaccine accessibility to the public to boost numbers.
“The most trusted messenger is the local doctor, the local healthcare provider, so increasingly we have vaccines in doctor’s offices, at healthcare clinics, so that people can get their questions answered and roll up their sleeve and get a shot,” Zients said.
If not enough people get that shot, it could spell a surge in the pandemic this winter, experts have said.
Vaccine expert Dr. Paul Offit estimated in May that 80% of the population will need to become immunized through vaccines or prior infections to avoid a winter surge.