WASHINGTON — Five low-vaccinated clusters — including two in Texas — could put the entire country at risk for spreading new variants of COVID-19, according to a new analysis out of Georgetown University.
The areas with concentrations of unvaccinated residents 12 and older encompass Texas’ western Panhandle and eastern Piney Woods regions — and are a major cause for concern for health experts.
Georgetown researchers, who have been tracking vaccination rates since December, found that there are about 30 clusters across the U.S. that have lower vaccination rates than the national average of 47.8%. The five they have identified as most vulnerable are scattered across eight states concentrated in the southeastern part of the country, touching Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.
The two clusters in Texas together encompass around 141 counties out of 254, said Dr. Shweta Bansal, an associate professor of biology at Georgetown who headed the project. Although that’s a significant portion of the state, the clusters do not include many of the highest-density cities, which have had greater success with vaccination.
Texas’ overall vaccination rate does not paint an accurate picture of the state’s danger level, Bansal said. From a glance, Texas appears to be in good shape, with 50.4% of the population 12 and older — or 12 million people — reported as fully vaccinated, according to data provided by the Texas Department of State Health Services. And nearly 14 million people in Texas, or 58%, have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.
But the Georgetown analysis raises a number of troubling concerns. For one, nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the country were people who weren’t vaccinated, according to The Associated Press.
And unvaccinated clusters pose greater threats because each interaction with an unvaccinated individual risks a new transmission of COVID-19, Bansal said. With every new case of the virus, there is another chance for a new variant to emerge. Already, the highly contagious delta variant that was first found in India in December has become the dominant strain in all new identified cases of the coronavirus in the U.S.
In other words, it’s no time to let our guard down, she cautioned.
If a new variant surfaces that is resistant to current vaccines, “it would mean rewinding the clock back to 2020 for all of us, even those of us that are vaccinated,” Bansal said.
She noted that certain counties have been doing better than others. For example, Dallas County has a 41.2% vaccination rate, while Harris County’s rate is 42.5%.
Yet in other counties, especially those in one of the clusters, some vaccination rates still hover in the low 20s.
“We can decide that we’re happy with having two Americas, two Texases, with a line between vaccinated and unvaccinated counties,” Bansal said. “But I’m pretty sure we don’t want to do that. Interactions are going to continue and if they do, we’ll continue to be at risk.”
The repercussions of unchecked transmission in the state would reach nationwide, experts say. The U.S. is not going to be in a stable position until each of these low-vaccination areas is brought up to at least a national average, said Dr. Ben Neuman, a virology professor at Texas A&M University.
“These are the places where the virus is going to have the easiest time to grow and flourish, essentially,” Neuman said. “And the variants that come out of these hot spots are going to be problems that the rest of the country and ultimately the world are going to have to deal with.”
Public health officials have mounted ambitious campaigns to combat vaccine hesitancy, which remains high in Texas. A recently released poll by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler showed that 1 in 5 unvaccinated Texans have so far resisted making an appointment to get the vaccine, with many citing concerns about potential side effects.
Neuman said the Georgetown research is an important move in the right direction. Once public health officials have a clearer sense of where vaccine-resistant areas are, they can better target their messaging and outreach efforts.
“Change has got to come through those communities, and this is a step forward in identifying how to do that,” Neuman said.