Despite vaccines’ positive impact, unvaccinated hotspots and delta raise COVID numbers

When the summer of 2021 began, COVID-19 seemed to be on the retreat in most of the U.S. President Joe Biden talked about celebrating America's "independence" from the virus on July 4. But the delta variant has changed the game. On memorial day, the U.S. was averaging about 21,000 new cases a day. Now, it's at about 160,000 daily. Hospitalizations and deaths are rising too. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • John Yang:

    Back at the beginning of the summer, COVID seemed to be on the retreat in most of the country. President Biden talked on the Fourth of July about celebrating America's independence from the virus.

    But on Labor Day, the traditional end of summer, the Delta variant is taking a huge toll.

    Stephanie Sy looks at where the country stands and where we may be headed.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    John, to get a sense of how much things have changed, consider these numbers.

    On Memorial Day, the U.S. was averaging about 21,000 new cases a day. Today, it's about 160,000. Then, there were about 47,000 hospitalizations a day. Now it's over 100,000. And deaths had dropped to under 1,000 a day in may. Now the country is averaging more than 1, 500 daily deaths for the first time since March.

    We look at all of this with Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine. She cares for patients at Bellevue Hospital Center and hosts the podcast "Epidemic."

    Dr. Gounder, I know you have not had this Labor Day off, so I really appreciate you coming on the "NewsHour" to talk about some of these bleak statistics.

    First of all, are you struck by how little progress we have made?

  • Dr. Celine Gounder, Public Health Specialist:

    I am encouraged we have made progress on certain fronts.

    A year ago, we did not have a vaccine. We now have multiple, highly safe and effective vaccines. And where they have been rolled out, we're seeing a huge impact. Today, I was on service at Bellevue. Not one of my patients today had COVID. And that is a dramatic difference from what we were dealing with last summer.

    And that is really a reflection of this being a part of the country where many people have been vaccinated, and that's making a difference.

    However, that's not the case in many parts of the country still, even though we do have these safe and effective vaccines, and we're bearing the burden, the suffering resulting from that lack of vaccination.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So, nationally, right now, we have 53 percent of the population fully vaccinated. And we have heard over and over again that what we're seeing in hospitalizations and deaths is the vast majority are unvaccinated, and yet still so many new cases.

    In early summer, Celine, we thought we had reached a turning point where vaccines protected us from getting and spreading COVID. I want you to give us a reality check. What does the real turning point look like to you, especially with Delta?

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    The surge we're seeing this summer is very much related to Delta.

    This strain of the virus is far more infectious than any other variant we have seen to date. But I do think Americans had this false sense of security, this feeling of mission accomplished back in late May and June that was simply not realistic. These kinds of respiratory viruses come in waves. We were in a lull between waves at that time.

    And it was very predictable we were going to experience a resurgence sometime later in the summer or fall.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Do you think that there was public health messaging that was coming out of the administration that was in a way out of sync with what the vaccine could accomplish?

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    I think people in this country view vaccines as a silver bullet, that, once you're vaccinated, you don't have to worry about this anymore. And that's simply not the case.

    Vaccines are very good. They're very safe, very effective. If you have been vaccinated, your chances of ending up in the hospital or dying from COVID are really minimal. However, they're not perfect. And so it was to be expected we would see breakthrough infections, especially in places where we're seeing a lot of community transmission of the virus.

    In South Carolina, for example, which has some of the highest rates of transmission in the country, if you're vaccinated, your risk of getting COVID are equivalent to somebody who is not vaccinated here in New York state. And that is simply because there is so much more virus circulating right now in South Carolina that, even with the protection of the vaccine, you could still get infected.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I want to ask you another question.

    And that's about booster shots, because there has been conflicting messaging from the Biden administration on booster shots. How aggressively should fully vaccinated folks be looking for that additional shot at this point?

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    So, there are three groups where there's very good evidence that an additional dose makes sense now.

    So that's people who are highly immunocompromised. And when I say highly, I mean people who have had solid organ transplants like lung or kidney transplant, people who are getting treatment for certain kinds of cancers or autoimmune disease, people who have AIDS. So this is not the average person who has asthma or diabetes that we're talking about here.

    The two other groups are the elderly, and it's a little fuzzy where you draw the line, but elderly people clearly have a less robust immune response to the vaccines. And then, finally, people living in nursing homes.

    We have seen breakthrough infections in nursing homes among nursing home residents. Typically, what happens is you have a caregiver or a visitor who is not vaccinated who gets infected in the community, brings the virus into the nursing home, setting off an outbreak in the nursing home.

    So, while, yes, you should be giving additional doses in nursing homes to residents, some of what really needs to be done is vaccinating the unvaccinated. And in that context, it would mean the caregivers and their visitors.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And it sounds like that is still the priority is vaccinating the unvaccinated before fully vaccinated individuals going out and rushing to get that booster shot.

    Dr. Celine Gounder, host of the "Epidemic" podcast, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    My pleasure.

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