Surges of confirmed coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in several U.S. states are causing health professionals to sound alarms about the continued spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, the transmission of which is being primarily driven by unvaccinated individuals.
“Unfortunately, a lot of hospitals nationally are seeing more and more cases getting hospitalized,” Dr. Payal Patel, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Michigan, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “A lot of these folks — in fact, probably, more than 90% of them — have not been vaccinated.”
The 7-day average of new reported cases hit 127,470 on Monday, according to New York Times data. The 7-day average for hospitalizations nationally from COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has doubled. An overwhelming majority of those casualties were among unvaccinated patients. (Generally, rises in COVID-19 hospitalizations are a followed by rises in COVID-19 deaths.)
About 58.7% of the U.S. population ages 12 and up are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data, and about 68.8% have received at least one dose. The numbers are lower when considering children under 12.
According to the CDC, those who are fully vaccinated can still transmit the Delta variant to others despite all three vaccines being very effective in preventing cases of serious illness and death. At the same time, transmission among unvaccinated populations seems to occur at a much higher rate.
“You have to be flexible as things change, and we’ve seen that the Delta variant has really changed things for us,” Patel said. “In the science community, as well as the legislative community, it’s really important to be flexible as things change. Right now, masks are a temporary measure. They’re not going to cure the pandemic. It’s really vaccines that are going to get us there.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), recently warned that allowing the virus to spread unchecked in some areas of the world will lead to more variants emerging and also noted that vaccinations were the best defense against widespread transmission.
"It is very important to get as many people vaccinated as we possibly can," he told ABC News.
'The Delta variant has really changed things for us'
Many hospitals in Southern states are being overwhelmed with COVID patients, mirroring troubles that other parts of the country experienced earlier in the pandemic.
Louisiana just set a new record for COVID-related hospitalizations. In Houston, United Memorial Medical Center ran out of beds, including pediatric beds. This led to an 11-month-old girl with COVID-19 being airlifted to a Texas hospital 150 miles away in order to receive care.
“As we get more and more full, you worry about falling, breaking your arm, getting in a car accident — those are all hospital beds that need to be there for people who don’t have COVID,” Patel said. “So it’s really worrisome for the medical community to see this be happening again, especially when we have vaccines out there that can prevent hospitalization [and] can prevent death.”
The influx of cases has led to the CDC shifting their stance on indoor masking. The organization is now strongly encouraging people, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks indoors because of how contagious the Delta variant is.
“Masks are a temporary measure to help us control the spread,” Patel said, “same that we’ve been talking about social distancing when you’re indoors trying to ventilate, trying to have a mask on if you’re going to be around other people — that can prevent you from getting sick and unvaccinated people from getting really sick. But again, that’s not going to be the final answer. That’s going to be getting more people vaccinated.”
On a federal level, the Pentagon recently announced that it is requiring all active duty service members to be vaccinated by mid-September, and President Biden is mandating vaccines for federal employees as well. He’s also directed the Treasury to provide $100 payments to states to incentivize their residents to be vaccinated.
“We’re really trying to focus on that n of people who haven’t gotten a single shot, and I think some of the ways the nation is trying to go forward there is the federal government trying to have the VA become vaccinated, other federal employees become vaccinated,” Patel said. “That’s going to really get a lot of people who are on the fence and not sure if they want to get the vaccine, and help reduce the spread.”
Vaccines for kids will be key
Another key development, according to Patel, will be once vaccines are available to all children under the age of 12.
According to Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the "odds are high" that a vaccine for that age group will be approved by the FDA within the upcoming school year.
“It’s tough,” Patel said. “We’ve had over a year to learn about the spread of the virus, what can help to reduce that. And I'm really looking forward to those vaccines coming out for the younger population.”
In the meantime, for parents with children returning to school this fall, Patel highlighted key things to ask.
“What I would say is if you’re a parent and your child is starting, you want to see: What is your school doing? Are they helping with ventilation? Are they talking about masks in school?” Patel said. “We know those things really do reduce spread and until we get more kids vaccinated, we’re going to have to rely on the things we know have worked in that last year.”
Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at email@example.com.