CDC director: Delta variant is growing threat to unvaccinated people

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky issued her gravest warning yet Thursday about the highly contagious Delta variant, which has driven a sharp increase in new Covid-19 cases across the country.

Nearly 25 percent of new infections have been linked to Delta, she said, up from 6 percent in early June.

"Looking across the country we have made incredible progress," Walensky said during a press briefing Thursday. "However, looking state by state and county by country it is clear communities where people remain unvaccinated are communities that are vulnerable. I expect that in the coming weeks the [Delta] variant will eclipse the Alpha variant."

Walensky’s remarks come just days before the July 4 holiday, which President Joe Biden has targeted as the date by which the country would return to normal life. Biden also set a goal in May of having 70 percent of U.S. adults vaccinated with at least one Covid-19 shot by the holiday — a goal that the White House will narrowly miss amid dwindling demand for vaccines. About 57 percent of American adults are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.

The Biden administration is in the midst of an aggressive campaign to reduce vaccine hesitancy. Top officials including Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, and First Lady Jill Biden have traveled to communities in Washington, D.C. and Florida in an effort to address Americans’ concerns about Covid-19 shots. But the rate of vaccination has not improved in recent weeks, prompting Biden health officials to warn that undervaccinated communities are vulnerable to new outbreaks.

Despite the rise of the Delta variant, the CDC does not have plans to reinstate masking recommendations for those who are vaccinated, according to people familiar with the discussions. That represents a break from the World Health Organization, which last week reiterated its belief that everyone should continue wearing masks, regardless of vaccination status.

Biden officials have stressed in recent days that masks are necessary to protect the unvaccinated population increasingly at risk of infection. Those who get the shot, by contrast, are overwhelmingly shielded from the disease. The CDC is working to model the risk posed by Delta variant and is studying how well the vaccines available in the U.S. protect against it.

Walensky said the Delta variant poses the greatest risk in parts of the country where the vaccination rate is still lagging. Approximately 1,000 counties in the U.S. have vaccination coverage of less than 30 percent, Walensky said. That includes counties in states such as Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

The administration is set to send response teams composed of officials from the CDC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services to areas struggling to increase their vaccination rates. The officials plan on helping deliver vaccine supplies and providing staff for vaccination sites. It is unclear what exactly the new teams will do differently to tackle the Delta variant from what the federal government has already been doing to contain the spread of Covid-19.

The federal government has for nearly a year relied on CDC, HHS and FEMA staff to help states to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. FEMA has spent the past six months sending significant resources, including military personnel, to states to set up vaccination sites. CDC staff have worked with state public health departments to track Covid-19 cases and isolate people who test positive for the virus.

Two Biden officials working on the administration’s vaccine campaign said the federal government is currently discussing ways to more efficiently target communities that are hesitant about receiving the shot or simply do not want to get the jab. In some instances, those officials said, the federal government may not be the best messenger. The push to get people vaccinated may fall largely on local public health officials and community members.

State officials in Nevada are redoubling efforts to push the vaccine amid one of the worst outbreaks in the country. The daily case count has more than doubled over the last two weeks and hospitalizations are up 40 percent. Vaccination efforts are focusing on Clark County, home to Las Vegas, where the governor this week announced he would be deploying additional mobile vaccine units and offering grants to community organizations doing direct outreach to vaccine hesitant residents.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson urged unvaccinated people celebrating the holiday weekend to remain masked or socially distant as the state is experiencing a surge in cases. Arkansas has 300 people hospitalized with Covid-19 for the first time since March.

Hospitalizations in Missouri have nearly quadrupled in six weeks as the Delta variant has swept through the northern and southwestern parts of the state. Gov. Mike Parson on Wednesday told local media that the state is focused on a marketing campaign to boost vaccination rates.

Some local and state officials have ramped up their messaging about the importance of wearing masks amid the spread of the Delta variant.

In Los Angeles, public health officials have urged residents to begin wearing masks again in public places, including restaurants and stores. The city dropped its public mask mandate June 15. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday that residents of the state, even the fully vaccinated, should begin to wear masks again in high-risk situations, including crowded indoor gatherings.

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