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On a national scale, the daily average of newly reported COVID cases continues to drop to the lowest levels seen since the earliest days of the pandemic. The decrease in infections has allowed public life to resume as "normal" in ways not experienced in over a year in some areas. But even as figures plummet, an expert warns that changing conditions mean that a few states are at a high risk of a major COVID surge in the coming months.
During an appearance on CBS' Face the Nation on June 20, Scott Gottlieb, MD, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner, discussed how the next phase of the pandemic might not affect all parts of the U.S. equally. Rather, areas that have been slow to vaccinate their populations could see a sudden spike in cases.
"So Connecticut, for example, where I am, shows no upsurge of infection, but Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri show very substantial upsurges of infections," he said. "That's based entirely on how much population-wide immunity you have based on vaccination."
He also explained that the arrival of the highly contagious Delta variant, which was first discovered in India, also means that a new wave of infections is likely to wash across areas such as these soon. "This variant is probably 40 to 60 percent more effective, more contagious than the 1.1.7 variant, that variant that became prevalent in the United States and caused that surge in the late spring," he said, adding that the variant is already spreading quickly among unvaccinated populations in the U.K., especially children.
Gottlieb then cited recent data that show the conditions are primed in some areas for new surges to sprout up in a few months. "When you look at the modeling that's circulating right now among epidemiologists about what we face in the fall, they are predicting that in a scenario where we only get to about 75 percent of the eligible population vaccinated and have a 60 percent more transmissible variant, which this new Delta variant may be…they do show an upsurge of infection and reaching a peak of around 20 percent of the infection that we reached last winter," he explained, especially as some states have struggled to get even one dose of vaccine into even half of their population.
"So about 20 percent of the peak in January, we will hit in the fall at some point," he clarified.
But Gottlieb wasn't alone at sounding the alarm on the potential for future spikes in cases. At a press briefing held just days earlier, on June 17, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy heralded a similar warning, saying: "Our COVID 19 vaccine public education efforts have continued in earnest and, in fact, with even greater urgency given the spread of the Delta variant, which is significantly more transmissible, may be more dangerous than prior variants, and which serves as a stark reminder that if you are vaccinated, you are protected; if you are not, the threat of variants is real and growing."