After months of precipitous decline in COVID-19 cases thanks to the vaccines made widely available in the United States, the number of new cases per day is on the rise again. According to CDC data, the seven-day average of new cases rose 70 percent over last week to 26,000 new cases, with hospitalizations up 36 percent and deaths 26 percent.
“There is a message that is crystal clear: this is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a Friday briefing, according to Insider. “We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage because unvaccinated people are at risk.” The primary driver for the increase in cases is the more transmissable Delta variant, which in early July began to make up the majority of new infections in the U.S.
The overlap of a more contagious virus and pockets of vaccine hesitancy has also caused a serious uptick in states where vaccination rates lag behind the rest of the country. As the Associated Press recently notes, the five states with the largest two-week jump in cases per capita had lower vaccination rates than the national average of 55.6 percent of Americans who have received at least one shot: Missouri at 45.9 percent, Arkansas at 43 percent, Nevada at 50.9 percent, Louisiana at 39.2 percent, and Utah at 49.5 percent. Walensky stated last week that 93 percent of the 173 counties with the highest infection rates have less than 40 percent of residents vaccinated.
In New York City, Delta now makes up almost 70 percent of all new cases, with daily caseloads doubling since late June. And to slow Delta’s spread after months of progress, Los Angeles County instituted an indoor mask mandate in public on July 17. Though the Centers for Disease Control and the California Department of Public Health have stated that vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks inside in most situations, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said on July 18 that it is “very reasonable for counties to take more mitigation measures, like the mask rules coming out of LA” in places where “there are low numbers of vaccinated people.”
Low vaccination rates aren’t the only factor at play, as all but two states (Maine and South Dakota) have seen their cases rise in the past two weeks. Public-health experts also note that behavior appears to have driven cases up. “It is certainly no coincidence that we are looking at exactly the time that we would expect cases to be occurring after the July Fourth weekend,” Dr. Bill Powderly, co-director of the infectious-disease division at Washington University’s School of Medicine in St. Louis, told the AP.
At this point in the pandemic — with over 90 percent of American seniors vaccinated — there are some concerns that daily caseloads are not the most important metric for tracking the spread of the coronavirus in a nation where the population is now at far less risk of hospitalization or death, as New York’s David Wallace-Wells wrote yesterday. Still, deaths are at an average of 260 per day and are taking their toll almost exclusively among the unvaccinated population: According to NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci, over 99 percent of those who died from the coronavirus in June had not received the vaccine. To help boost vaccination rates in states where they are lacking, several Republican leaders have come forward urging residents to get vaccinated — countering the vaccine skepticism broadcast on television on a nightly basis. “If you’re a football fan, we’re in the red zone” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “But we’re not in the end zone yet. And we need to keep preaching that getting the vaccine is important.”