Vaccine effort turns into slog as infectious variant spreads

  • In this June 11 photo, a healthcare worker prepares inject a student with a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in Wheeling, Ill. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

As cases tumble and states reopen, the potential final stage in the U.S. campaign to vanquish COVID-19 is turning into a slog, with a worrisome variant gaining a bigger foothold and lotteries and other prizes failing to persuade some Americans to get vaccinated.

“The last half, the last mile, the last quarter-mile always requires more effort,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday.

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While two of the states slammed hardest by the disaster, California and New York, celebrated their reopenings this week with fireworks and a multimillion-dollar drawing, hospitalizations in parts of Missouri are surging and cases are rising sharply in Texas, illustrating the challenges the country faces this summer.

One major concern is the highly contagious and potentially more severe delta variant of the coronavirus that originated in India. While health officials say the vaccines are effective against it, the fear is that it will lead to outbreaks in states with lower vaccination rates.

The delta variant has increased from 2.7% of all cases in May to 9.7% this month, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a call for governors on Monday, according to details provided by the Washington governor’s office.

At the same time, states are convening focus groups to better understand who is declining to get vaccinated, why, and how to convince them that getting the shot is the right thing to do.

“It’s a race between the vaccines going into people and the current or future variants,” said Kansas Health Secretary Dr. Lee Norman.

Average deaths and cases per day have plummeted 90% or more across the U.S. since the winter. But the picture is uneven.

In Texas, the rolling average of newly confirmed infections has climbed from about 1,000 per day on May 31 to nearly 2,000 this week.

A swath of Missouri is seeing a big rise in cases and hospitalizations as tourists eager to get out after being cooped up for a year make their way to popular destinations like Branson and Lake of the Ozarks. Health officials said more than 200 people were hospitalized with the virus in southwestern Missouri, nearly double the number at the start of May. The number of patients in intensive care units in the region has tripled.

Health experts cite two factors driving the surge there: the faster-spreading delta variant and a reluctance among residents to get vaccinated.

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The U.S. is expected to fall short of President Joe Biden’s goal of dispensing at least one dose to 70% of American adults by July 4. The figure stands at about 65%.

Among the states that don’t expect to hit the goal are Kansas and Idaho. In Idaho, some counties have adult vaccination rates under 30%, said Elke Shaw-Tulloch, public health administrator for the state Department of Health and Welfare.

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