'Those deaths were preventable': Unvaccinated parts of country are driving the pandemic now

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WASHINGTON — Virtually all deaths from COVID-19 in the United States are now among people who have not received their coronavirus vaccine. And those deaths are highly concentrated in counties — many of them in the Midwest and Southeast — where vaccination rates are precariously low.

On the other hand, transmission has effectively ceased in Northeastern and Western states where governors have made vaccination a top priority, and where resistance was low among residents from the start.

Rochelle Walensky

“We are seeing that communities and counties that have high vaccine coverage and low case rates are getting back to normal,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a Thursday briefing of the White House pandemic response team.

Walensky depicted a national scenario that has become highly fractured as a result of stark differences in vaccination rates. Those differences have to do with cultural, social, economic and political factors.

At the same time, the vaccines remain highly effective against every variant of the coronavirus, including the more transmissible Delta variant that Walensky said accounts for eight out of 10 new cases in parts of the Mountain West. Delta is now the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the United States.

Walensky said that in recent months, 99.5 percent of all deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. were among unvaccinated individuals. “Those deaths were preventable with a simple, safe shot,” the CDC director said. President Biden has made much the same point, and he and his top public health officials look for ways to galvanize a stalled vaccination effort.

Although some vaccinated people do contract the coronavirus, it tends to lead only to mild sickness.

For weeks, the path of the pandemic has been steadily bifurcating, with parts of the country returning to normal and others seeming to slip back into rising case rates. Overall, case rates and hospitalizations are rising slightly, while deaths are continuing to fall. But those national trends are not indicative of more nuanced on-the-ground realities.

An undertaker in Tampa, Fla., tends to a man who died of COVID-19. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)
An undertaker in Tampa, Fla., tends to a man who died of COVID-19. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

In particular, Walensky singled out 173 counties with the highest incidence of new infections — 100 or more cases per 100,000 individuals over the last week. Of those 173 counties, 93 percent have vaccinated less than 40 percent of their respective populations, according to Walensky.

In recent days, parts of Missouri and Arkansas have seen a sharp rise in cases. So have parts of Colorado and Utah.

Meanwhile, the high-vaccination state of Maryland is recording about one new coronavirus death per day.

“Low vaccination rates in these counties coupled with high case rates and lax mitigation policies that do not protect those who are unvaccinated from disease will certainly and sadly lead to more unnecessary suffering, hospitalizations and, potentially, death,” the CDC director said.

Unvaccinated people are supposed to continue wearing masks, according to the most recent CDC guidance. Walensky and other top public health officials have said that rather than returning to wearing masks, people should get vaccinated.

“Widespread vaccination is what will truly turn the corner on this pandemic,” Walensky said on Thursday. According to the CDC, 47.6 percent of the American population is fully vaccinated. That is among the highest rates in the world, but not nearly enough, most epidemiologists believe, to declare that final corner turned.


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