According to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, the Delta variant now accounts for 83% of all COVID cases in the U.S., a 33% increase from two weeks ago. Walensky added that 99.5% of all COVID-related deaths in the country over recent months have been among unvaccinated Americans.
“This is a critical time during our pandemic and particularly we worry about regions like the Southeast, the South, and mountain states where it’s a perfect storm brewing — low vaccination rates, lack of mitigation measures, high prevalence of the Delta variant, cases going up, testing down, positivity rates high, hospitalizations high,” Dr. Anand Parekh, chief medical advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former deputy assistant secretary at Health and Human Services (HHS), said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above).
Current COVID-19 hot spots in the U.S. include Missouri, Arkansas, and Florida, according to the Mayo Clinic, highlighting Parekh's point. Florida now leads the U.S. in COVID cases, accounting for roughly 20% of all new infections in the country.
“That’s really driving what we’re seeing nationally: a three-fold increase in cases up to about 30,000 seven-day average, hospitalizations going up,” Parekh said. “Again, the vaccinations are the answer here, and masking will be critical as well.”
'What I'm most worried about is disinformation'
Most of the remaining unvaccinated Americans haven’t budged from their positions of opting out of the vaccine.
A recent poll of 1,715 U.S. adults from Yahoo News/YouGov found that only 29% of them believe the virus is more dangerous than the vaccines. Meanwhile, 37% believe vaccines pose more of a risk.
“What I’m most worried about is disinformation, which is the willful or falsification of information,” Parekh said. “That has to be priority number one. That just cannot be acceptable … It’s really important to get at the disinformation piece. The misinformation we’re going to have to continue to work on. That’s education, but combating disinformation needs to be the number one priority.”
Social media plays a major role in disseminating disinformation. Facebook (FB) has recently come under fire for not doing enough to stop COVID-related disinformation on its platform, with President Biden going so far as to say companies like Facebook were "killing people."
“At the end of the day, Americans will have to decide for themselves,” Parekh said. “I hope that everyone gets vaccinated, but Americans should have the facts to make the decision. But disinformation, when you have actors out there that are willingly falsifying information, I think absolutely private sector partners such as the tech industry need to take steps. They need to be public about the steps they’re taking.”
'Vaccination is really our route out of this pandemic'
While disinformation continues spreading, more and more vulnerable Americans are falling ill to the virus.
“In America, you have two realities,” Parekh said. “One for those Americans who are vaccinated, who are protected from the Delta variant, and those who are unvaccinated, who are facing a threat like they’ve never seen before. This Delta variant is not the same virus that we saw a year ago. It’s highly transmissible. It may even lead to more severe illness.”
For vaccinated Americans, their job is done for the most part, though Parekh did note that whether or not they should wear a mask depends on their individual circumstances, such as living in an area with a high case count or living in a home with vulnerable family members.
“Masking is important because it breaks chains of transmission,” Parekh said. “Masking is important to reduce transmission as well as to protect yourself. We know both of those are true. It’s protecting others who may not be vaccinated. It also protects yourself from potential breakthrough infections.”
Because of the recent surge in cases, some cities and counties have reinstated mask mandates, irrespective of vaccination status, including places like Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I think the message is, particularly for those unvaccinated, that vaccination is really our route out of this pandemic,” Parekh said. “Until you get vaccinated, masking in public is also going to be critical as well.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.