The number of Americans receiving their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine has dropped significantly in recent days, according to Centers for Disease Control data released late Wednesday, worrying health officials as flu season approaches.
The seven-day moving average of daily first doses was about 272,000 by the end of last week, according to the CDC, making it the slowest week of first-dose immunizations since mid-July. On Tuesday, fewer than 21,000 individuals were injected with their first shot, tentative figures from the CDC show, potentially making it the slowest day since Christmas 2020.
This slowdown is partly because millions of Americans have already been either fully or partially vaccinated. About 55% of Americans are fully vaccinated, while about 64% have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. But it also comes amid an unwelcome comeback of infections and deaths across the country, and as the United States falls behind in overall vaccination rates globally, despite having had a months-long head start in immunizing its population.
Vaccination rates mostly rose from December 2020 through April in America as more people became eligible for vaccination, the CDC data show. At the peak, April 8, nearly 2.6 million people received their first shot. Rates fell again until July, when the highly transmissible delta variant increased coronavirus case numbers, pushing more people to get vaccinated. In August, vaccination rates started dropping again.
The hardest hit regions in the United States, in terms of deaths, hospitalizations and infections per capita, are also where vaccination rates are low, according to figures compiled by The Washington Post, adding more weight to assertions from health professionals that vaccinations help shield the population from the coronavirus.
Alabama, where deaths have risen by 200% from last week, has the fourth-lowest vaccination rate in the country, among the 50 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories. The United States as a whole saw deaths rise by 7% over the same period.
West Virginia has the highest hospitalization rate in the country, with about 58 people per 100,000 hospitalized for COVID-19. The state has the lowest vaccination rate in the country with about 40% of the population being fully vaccinated. The national average for hospitalizations is 27 per 100,000 people.
Alaska, where new daily case rates are among the worst in the country and where “crisis standards of care” were activated in hospitals this week, has fully vaccinated less than half its population.
With the approach of flu season, health officials are bracing for an increased strain on medical systems that are already reaching the breaking point. The common flu has killed between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans per year in the past decade, according to CDC estimates. It has also hospitalized hundreds of thousands.
“On any given day, between 85 to 90% of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients right now are unvaccinated,” Cindy Knall, a professor of immunology at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, said in an email. The needs of those patients mean resources will be limited for flu patients who need hospital-level care, she said.
“I’m trying to stay hopeful, so I won’t use the term dire, but things are not good here,” Knall said. “I see it in the eyes of my colleagues who are working in the hospitals. I hear it in the catch of their voices. I don’t think the public wants to know what Crisis Standard of Care could mean for their loved one who needs care.”
Although flu infections and deaths fell to record lows during the previous flu season, the likely reasons for those drops cited by the CDC, such as social distancing and common mask-wearing, have diminished. More people are gathering in large numbers, and more schools have returned to in-person learning. Mask-wearing has become less common, and travel has rebounded.
Knall said she expects this coming flu season to resemble more closely those of the pre-pandemic years.
“Last flu season much of the country was under masking and closure conditions, which helped lessen the flu caseload,” she said. “This year we don’t have those public health measures in place.”
Experts envisioned such a scenario earlier in the year — and saw it in countries where restrictions were lifted earlier. “I think this has clearly shown that masking, distancing, hand-washing — all these things clearly work,” Aaron Milstone, an epidemiologist and professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, told The Post as the last flu season was coming to an end.
“So I think the question will be, how much appetite do people have for all that to prevent influenza, instead of just COVID.”
The slower pace of vaccination has also resulted in dozens of countries that were once far behind in vaccination rates surpassing the United States, according to data compiled by researchers at the University of Oxford.
Japan and South Korea, which had a vaccination rate of less than 1% in early March, when the United States had immunized about a fifth of its population, have now reached vaccination rates of about 70%.