WASHINGTON — Federal health officials sounded an alarm Friday about a surge in U.S. coronavirus infections fueled by the twin threats posed by the highly transmissible delta variant and a stagnation in efforts to vaccinate as many Americans as possible.
During a White House briefing, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the seven-day average of coronavirus infections soared nearly 70% in just one week, to about 26,300 cases a day. The seven-day average for hospitalizations has increased, too, climbing about 36% from the previous seven-day period, she said.
“There is a clear message that is coming through: This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Walensky said. “We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage because unvaccinated people are at risk, and communities that are fully vaccinated are generally faring well.”
Data and maps illustrated the hastening pace of cases — and the disproportionate burden borne by some states. Florida emerged as a national hot spot, accounting for 1 in 5 cases in the past week. Four states were responsible for more than 40% of cases in the past week, health officials said. And 10% of counties have moved into “high transmission risk.”
The response in some corners of the nation was swift. In Los Angeles County, an indoor mask mandate — applying to everyone, vaccinated or not — was reimposed. In Abilene, Kan., the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum was shuttered because of an increase in COVID-19 cases.
Health officials repeatedly stressed the outsize toll COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, is taking on unvaccinated people and communities.
More than 97% of hospitalizations are among those who are unvaccinated, Walensky said, and almost all COVID-19 deaths — which climbed 26% in the past week — are among people who have not received a shot.
“Unvaccinated Americans account for virtually all recent COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths,” said Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator. “Each COVID-19 death is tragic, and those happening now are even more tragic because they are preventable.”
On Friday, the Association of American Medical Colleges recommended all of its member institutions require vaccinations for employees.
“We are aware of the sensitive nature of this recommendation and understand that it must be made on an institution-by-institution basis, subject to legally required exceptions and consistent with state law,” David Skorton, the association’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “However, for the safety of our patients, communities, health care personnel, faculty, and students, we encourage our members to require vaccinations for employees while working with local public health officials as appropriate.”
The delta variant has become the dominant strain worldwide and is responsible for the majority of U.S. cases, said Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In some parts of the United States, Fauci said, the delta variant is responsible for more than 70% of cases.
Fauci said young people — who have been particularly hesitant about getting vaccinated — are being hospitalized to a greater extent than they were earlier in the pandemic, in large part because most older Americans are inoculated.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy discussed Friday how misinformation about vaccines and the coronavirus more broadly has hampered the nation’s efforts to get vaccine-hesitant Americans inoculated. He called on social media platforms, news organizations and individual Americans to “call this activity out” and help properly inform the public.
“During this pandemic, health misinformation has led people to resist wearing masks and high-risk settings to turn down proven treatments, in some cases to turn to unproven treatments and to choose not to get vaccinated,” Murthy said. “All of this has led to avoidable illnesses and deaths. Simply put, health misinformation has cost us lives.”
In another indication of the ever-evolving pandemic, Zients said the administration would be prepared to administer booster shots to some Americans if the science demonstrates they are beneficial, but health officials stressed that Americans at this time do not need a booster. A CDC advisory panel is scheduled next week to discuss whether patients with fragile immunity should receive an additional vaccine dose. People who are immunocompromised do not mount the same immune response as healthy individuals in response to the vaccine.
Florida, where only about 47% of the population is fully vaccinated, ranks 26th among the states in vaccinations, according to the CDC’s vaccine tracker. The slow vaccine rollout, combined with a reduction in people wearing masks, made the large and populous state “a ripe ground for the emergence of the delta variant,” said John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“The concern for the South is the summer months bring people indoors because of the heat,” Brownstein said.
Mary Jo Trepka, an infectious-disease expert at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work at Florida International University, has been tracking the rise in case numbers from week to week and also seeing an increase in the percentage of people testing positive. The current surge, she said, feels uncomfortably familiar.
“It’s almost the same timeline as last year,” Trepka said. She’s hoping it won’t prove as steep.
Figures from Florida’s health department show that in the past month, the number of cases is four times higher, reaching more than 45,000 in the most recent week.
A week ago, the rate of cases in Miami-Dade County was 150 per 100,000 people, or five times the rate of the United States. What’s most worrisome, Trepka said, is the stalling vaccination rate.
The surge in infections is being reflected in an increase in hospitalizations, according to Hany Atallah, chief medical officer at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. The immediate challenge at the sprawling hospital is to figure out bed space and the availability of negative pressure rooms.
In the last 24 hours, there have been about 20 to 25 new COVID admissions, Atallah said, with the greatest increase in patients between the ages of 30 and 50. Atallah said most of the patients being admitted have not been vaccinated. But in a few instances, people who were vaccinated but are immunocompromised became sick enough to warrant hospital care.
Atallah urged people to maintain mask-wearing and social distancing, and to surmount lingering hesitancy about getting a shot.
“It’s not too late to get the vaccine,” Atallah said.
Vaccination rates are particularly low in some rural counties in northern and southern parts of Florida and in the Panhandle, according to Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the College of Public Health and Health Professions at the University of Florida. Prins also noted that people are acting as if they are done with the pandemic. “There a feeling of being open,” Prins said, particularly following the Fourth of July.
“It doesn’t have to be,” Prins said of the new surge. “If people would get vaccinated, we wouldn’t be seeing these numbers.”