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Unvaccinated Americans drive up COVID-19 hospitalization rates

About 97 percent of hospitalizations are tied to unvaccinated people

Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are increasing across the United States as the delta variant spreads, putting unvaccinated people in danger.

Over the past seven days, COVID-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. increased by 36 percent and deaths rose by 26 percent, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky warned Friday. Unvaccinated Americans account for 97 percent of these hospitalizations.

“There is a clear message that is coming through: This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Walensky told reporters as public health officials pleaded with Americans to get the shot.

Fully vaccinated individuals with either two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are protected from severe disease, hospitalization and death.

Just over 59 percent of American adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but in some areas of the country, such as the rural South, far fewer people have received the shot.

States with the lowest vaccination rates account for the majority of cases. Just four states accounted for more than 40 percent of all cases this past week, with 1 in 5 COVID-19 cases occurring in Florida alone, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said.

The highly transmissible delta variant is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 worldwide, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci explained. The strain is dominant in more than half of sequenced cases in the U.S., and delta makes up more than 70 percent of cases in some areas of the country.

“The bottom line is that we are dealing with a formidable variant with the delta variant … and the extreme vulnerability of people who are not vaccinated,” Fauci said.

But there is some good news. In the past week, the five states with the highest case rates — Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada and Arkansas — have a higher rate of newly vaccinated people than the national average.

The federal government is working with governors and local public health officials to provide specific federal resources to fight outbreaks of the delta variant. For example, this week, at the request of the Nevada governor, the Biden administration is deploying more than 100 people to the state to help enhance vaccine access and support outreach efforts.

Walensky said she would encourage local policymakers in regions of the country with low vaccination rates to potentially consider re-implementing mask mandates until more people receive a shot.

Meanwhile, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that the Food and Drug Administration has granted priority review to the companies’ application for full approval of its COVID-19 vaccine. Some Americans who have hesitated to get the vaccine said they prefer to wait for approval of the vaccines, which are now being used under emergency authorizations.

The federal government is preparing for the possibility of COVID-19 booster shots, but public health officials emphasized that they have not made a decision about whether another round of shots would be necessary. A booster shot would increase COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness in the case that a variant further diminishes it, Fauci said.

Next week, CDC advisers will meet to discuss whether or not such boosters may be helpful for immunocompromised people, who are especially vulnerable to the virus.

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