The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced results from a study Friday that found unvaccinated individuals were 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people.
The research, spanning more than 600,000 people in 13 jurisdictions, also determined that unvaccinated populations were over 10 times more likely to be hospitalized — figures that underscore COVID-19 vaccines protect recipients from deaths and hospitalizations.
The study also showed that unvaccinated people were 4 1/2 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than the fully vaccinated.
The studies come just one day after President Biden announced a new rule that would require private companies with 100 employees or more to mandate vaccinations or frequent coronavirus testing.
The Biden administration as a whole has pushed for the use of vaccines as the best way to combat the pandemic.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on Friday made the case for vaccines yet again, citing the study along with two others and stating that COVID-19 shots still work to protect recipients from the worst of the disease amid the rampant spread of the delta variant.
“As we have shown study after study, vaccination works,” Walensky said during the briefing. “CDC will continue to do all we can do to increase vaccination rates across the country by working with local communities and trusted messengers and providing vaccine confidence consults to make sure that people have the information they need to make an informed decision.”
“The bottom line is this: We have the scientific tools we need to turn the corner on this pandemic,” Walensky said. “Vaccination works and will protect us from the severe complications of COVID-19. It will protect our children and allow them to stay in school for safe in-person learning.”
The agency and Biden administration are promoting the data behind the vaccine effectiveness in their bolstered push to get the unvaccinated shots.
The U.S. has made progress with vaccinations, reaching 75 percent of adults who have had at least one dose earlier this week.
But the portion of unvaccinated people continues to affect the U.S.’s trajectory in the pandemic, with the unvaccinated making up almost all of the growing hospitalizations and deaths.
The other two studies in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) released Friday focused on the vaccine’s effectiveness against hospitalization.
One involving five Veterans Affairs Medical Centers found the mRNA vaccines’ overall effectiveness against hospitalization reached 86.8 percent.
Another similarly calculated that effectiveness at 86 percent among patients in emergency departments, urgent cares and hospitals across nine states.
However, the studies also provided some evidence that the effectiveness of the vaccines are starting to wane among the older population, prompting the researchers to call for further investigation.
For the patients in emergency departments, urgent cares and hospitals across nine states, the effectiveness among those aged 75 and older was 76 percent, while among those aged 18 to 74, effectiveness reached 89 percent.
But researchers urged caution, with the report saying “this moderate decline should be interpreted with caution and might be related to changes in SARS-CoV-2, waning of vaccine-induced immunity with increased time since vaccination, or a combination of factors.”
The study involving Veterans Affairs facilities determined that the mRNA vaccine effectiveness among those aged 65 and older was 79.8 percent, compared to 95.1 percent among those aged 18 to 64.
More than 82 percent of those aged 65 and older are considered fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said Friday the administration is aiming to get “as close to 100 percent as possible” through expanded outreach.
“We know that every senior matters in terms of getting them vaccinated as a potential life saved,” he said, adding that booster vaccinations “will likely be helpful” for the older population.
The Biden administration had announced it planned to start administering additional shots to recipients on Sept. 20 beginning eight months after their second shot.
But the plan led to criticism from some experts who said the administration was getting ahead of the review process at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), although officials say the strategy depends on FDA approval.
With the Delta variant now accounting for more than 83 percent of all new COVID cases in the US, daily new case counts more than quadrupling across the month of July, and hospitalizations—particularly in states with low vaccination rates—beginning to climb significantly, we appear to have entered a new and uncertain phase of the pandemic, now being dubbed a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”.
Welcome news, then, that this week the American Hospital Association (AHA) publicly encouraged its members to put in place vaccine mandates for their employees. While several large health systems have taken the lead in implementing vaccine mandates, including Trinity Health, the Livonia, MI-based Catholic system that operates hospitals across 22 states, Phoenix, AZ-based Banner Health, Houston Methodist in Texas, and the academic giant NewYork-Presbyterian, others have been more reticent to compel employees to get vaccinated, citing concerns over employee privacy and the potential for workforce backlash.
The New York Timesreports that a quarter of all hospital employees remain unvaccinated nationwide, with many facilities reporting that more than half of their healthcare workers have not gotten the COVID vaccine. In our discussions with health system executives, one consideration frequently cited is the desire for full Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the new vaccines before mandates are put in place.
In a CNN town hall meeting this week, President Biden suggested that approval could come as soon as the end of August, although other reports point to likely approval much later, potentially not until January of next year. Facing a new variant of the virus that is much more transmissible and possibly more virulent than earlier strains, hospitals—and their patients—can’t afford to wait that long.
For safety’s sake, hospitals should quickly put in place vaccine mandates, with appropriate exceptions.
The largest union for registered nurses in the U.S. called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to bring back recommendations for universal masking in public regardless of people’s vaccination status.
The National Nurses Union (NNU) in a Monday letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky requested that the agency reinstitute guidelines for all people to wear masks in public and in close proximity to those outside their household.
NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo pointed to a 16 percent uptick in U.S. COVID-19 cases from last week, according to CDC data, as well as rises in case counts in more than 40 states and hospitalizations in more than 25 states as reasons to return to previous, stricter guidelines.
“NNU strongly urges the CDC to reinstate universal masking, irrespective of vaccination status, to help reduce the spread of the virus, especially from infected individuals who do not have any symptoms,” Castillo wrote in the letter. “Our suggestions are based on science and the precautionary principle and are made in order to protect nurses, other essential workers, patients, and the public from Covid-19.”
The union also cited the World Health Organization’s (WHO) call for vaccinated people to continue wearing masks in public amid the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant. Several U.S. officials and experts have said the WHO’s guidance reflects the state of the pandemic worldwide, which overall has seen lower vaccination rates than the U.S.
Castillo acknowledged that COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death but noted “no vaccine is 100 percent effective, and the emergence and spread of variants of concern may reduce vaccine effectiveness.”
The NNU in its letter also appeals for the CDC to update its guidance to “fully recognize aerosol transmission,” mandate tracking and reporting of cases among health care and essential workers, and keep records of cases, including mild and asymptomatic infections, among fully vaccinated people to measure the shots’ effectiveness.
The CDC did not immediately return a request for comment on the letter, but officials have consistently defended the updated mask guidance, saying fully vaccinated individuals are protected against the virus.
The NNU vocally opposed the CDC’s current mask guidance updated in May to permit fully vaccinated individuals to go maskless in virtually all settings. The union has argued that the change in recommendations endangered patients, front-line workers and nurses as the pandemic continues.
In the Monday letter, the union wrote that the CDC’s relaxation of mask guidance “failed to account for” the possibility of fully vaccinated people contracting and spreading the virus. It also said the agency’s guidelines do not protect people, including children, who cannot get the vaccine.
The NNU sent the letter days after the CDC urged schools to reopen for full in-person learning in the fall, saying that fully vaccinated teachers and students do not need to wear masks.
It also comes after Los Angeles County and St. Louis County recommended their residents to wear masks in public indoors.
Health officials are grappling with how to prevent potential COVID-19 outbreaks from the delta variant that is spreading rapidly across the U.S.
Concern over the highly transmissible delta strain prompted Los Angeles County this week to recommend that all people wear masks indoors, even if they’re vaccinated. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also encouraged fully vaccinated people to continue using masks.
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not signaled any plans to revise its mask guidance, with Biden administration officials and some experts say that fully vaccinated Americans are safe from all existing COVID-19 variants.
“If you have been vaccinated, the message we’re conveying is you’re safe,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. “Vaccines are effective, and that is something we want to be very clear with the public about.”
Still, the move by officials in Los Angeles County raises the prospect that mask recommendations and even mandates could make a return to certain parts of the country.
The CDC projected the delta variant made up more than a quarter of cases in the U.S. in the most recent two-week period, ending June 19 — a jump from 10 percent the previous two weeks.
Los Angeles County issued a statement Monday saying it “strongly recommends” all people wear masks in indoor settings where they don’t know everyone’s vaccination status.
Barbara Ferrer, director of the county’s Department of Public Health, told The Hill that officials want to take time to get more people vaccinated as research is conducted on delta variant transmission from the fully vaccinated.
“While we’re doing that work with building confidence, we’re going to go ahead and offer as much protection as possible for everyone,” she said.
Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, praised the county’s decision as the “right move,” saying she hopes other jurisdictions follow suit to protect both vaccinated and unvaccinated residents.
“People who are fully vaccinated are still at risk, albeit a low risk, from those who are unvaccinated,” Wen said.
“Fully vaccinated people can be around others who are fully vaccinated without any limitations,” she added. “However, if they’re going to be around unvaccinated people or vaccination status is not being checked, then those could be high-risk settings” where masks should be worn.
For now, Los Angeles County is an outlier as cities and states continue to loosen mask requirements. Washington’s King County, home to Seattle, and Pennsylvania were the latest jurisdictions to end their mandates, taking that step this week.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told NBC’s “Today” on Wednesday that the agency’s guidance that fully vaccinated people don’t need masks in most settings has not changed. She said the WHO has given conflicting instructions, saying the international organization is focused on the global community, which has a lower vaccination rate than the U.S.
“We have always said that local policymakers need to make policies for their local environment,” Walensky said. “But those masking policies are not to protect the vaccinated, they’re to protect the unvaccinated.”
So far, the delta strain has not led to any changes in masking policies at the White House or the Capitol.
The White House does not require masks if a person is vaccinated, although the administration is not checking to see whether all maskless people have gotten their COVID-19 shots.
In recent weeks, the House has ended its universal mask requirement, and few people in the Capitol continue to wear them. The overwhelming majority of lawmakers in both parties have shed masks and freely gather in large groups on the House floor.
The Senate, which never had a mask requirement since nearly all senators voluntarily wore facial coverings when it was recommended, has also relaxed its pandemic restrictions.
But the delta variant threat is influencing other activities in the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced this week that proxy voting would be extended through Aug. 17, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that was due to the global spread of the delta variant.
“As we know, there are some countries in the world that are seeing a virulent resurgence of this new variant of the COVID-19. Israel is a perfect example of that,” Hoyer told reporters, referring to Israel reimposing its indoor mask mandate despite having one of the world’s highest vaccination rates. “But even in Israel, where they have the vaccine available, they’re seeing a resurgence.”
“So, the Speaker correctly, along with the medical advice that she’s gotten, determined that there was still justification for staying on guard,” Hoyer said.
Recent studies have found that COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the strain. Both doses of Pfizer-BioNTech were found to be 88 percent effective against symptomatic disease.
There is “less data” on how Johnson & Johnson performs, Walensky said Wednesday, but “right now we have no information to suggest that you need a second shot after J&J, even with the delta variant.”
Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health & HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said research shows the CDC guidance “still stands,” although she acknowledged the agency needs to be prepared to adjust.
Kates expressed concern that the resurgence of the mask debate could affect the vaccination effort, noting the variant is spreading mostly among unvaccinated people.
“The worst outcome, I think, is that people choose not to get vaccinated because they think the vaccines aren’t as effective against variants,” she said.
As most Americans have gotten vaccinated, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have declined significantly. But the U.S. is expected to fall short of President Biden’s goal to have 70 percent of adults receiving at least one vaccine dose by the Fourth of July.
The White House still plans to move forward with Independence Day festivities. The administration sent 1,000 invitations for people to gather at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on Sunday, with vaccinated people allowed to go without masks. All guests were instructed to get tested one to three days before arriving.
“We certainly feel comfortable and confident moving forward with our event here at the White House and individuals having barbecues in their backgrounds this week to celebrate the Fourth of July,” Psaki said on Wednesday.
As the delta variant of the coronavirus spreads, especially among the unvaccinated, the Biden administration is gearing up for a new push to vaccinate the so-called “movable middle”—and some public health experts say FDA could advance that goal by fully approving Covid-19 vaccines.
Analysis reveals toll of US Covid-19 deaths among unvaccinated patients
According to an analysis by the Associated Press, nearly all recent Covid-19 deaths have occurred in unvaccinated individuals.
The AP analysis is based on data from CDC, although CDC has not itself released estimates of the share of Covid-19 deaths among unvaccinated patients.
According to the AP analysis, just 0.8% of Covid-19 deaths in May were among the fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, the share of hospitalized patients who were fully vaccinated was just 0.1% in May, with fewer than 1,200 fully vaccinated people hospitalized out of more than 853,000 hospitalizations.
Meanwhile, according to CDC, 54% of the U.S. population, including 66% of American adults, have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, while 46.1% of the total population and 56.8% of American adults have received all required doses.
An argument for humility in the face of pandemic forecasting unknown unknowns.
“Are we battling an unprecedented pandemic or panicking at a computer generated mirage?” I asked at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic on March 18, 2020. Back then the Imperial College London epidemiological model’s baseline scenario projected that with no changes in individual behaviors and no public health interventions, more than 80 percent of Americans would eventually be infected with novel coronavirus and about 2.2 million would die of the disease. This implies that 0.8 percent of those infected would die of the disease. This is about 8-times worse than the mortality rate from seasonal flu outbreaks.
Spooked by these dire projections, President Donald Trump issued on March 16 his Coronavirus Guidelines for America that urged Americans to “listen to and follow the directions of STATE AND LOCAL AUTHORITIES.” Among other things, Trump’s guidelines pressed people to “work or engage in schooling FROM HOME whenever possible” and “AVOID SOCIAL GATHERINGS in groups of more than 10 people.” The guidelines exhorted Americans to “AVOID DISCRETIONARY TRAVEL, shopping trips and social visits,” and that “in states with evidence of community transmission, bars, restaurants, food courts, gyms, and other indoor and outdoor venues where people congregate should be closed.”
Let’s take a moment to recognize just how blindly through the early stages of the pandemic we—definitely including our public health officials—were all flying at the time. The guidelines advised people to frequently wash their hands, disinfect surfaces, and avoid touching their faces. Basically, these were the sort of precautions typically recommended for influenza outbreaks. On July 9, 2020, an open letter from 239 researchers begged the World Health Organization and other public health authorities to recognize that COVID-19 was chiefly spread by airborne transmission rather than via droplets deposited on surfaces. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) didn’t update its guidance on COVID-19 airborne transmission until May 2021. And it turns out that touching surfaces is not a major mode of transmission for COVID-19.
The president’s guidelines also advised, “IF YOU FEEL SICK, stay home. Do not go to work.” This sensible advice, however, missed the fact that a huge proportion of COVID-19 viral transmission occurred from people without symptoms. That is, people who feel fine can still be infected and, unsuspectingly, pass along their virus to others. For example, one January 2021 study estimated that “59% of all transmission came from asymptomatic transmission, comprising 35% from presymptomatic individuals and 24% from individuals who never develop symptoms.”
The Imperial College London’s alarming projections did not go uncontested. A group of researchers led by Stanford University medical professor Jay Bhattacharya believed that COVID-19 infections were much more widespread than the reported cases indicated. If the Imperial College London’s hypothesis were true, Bhattacharya and his fellow researchers argued, that would mean that the mortality rate and projected deaths from the coronavirus would be much lower, making the pandemic much less menacing.
The researchers’ strategy was to blood test people in Santa Clara and Los Angeles Counties in California to see how many had already developed antibodies in response to coronavirus infections. Using those data, they then extrapolated what proportion of county residents had already been exposed to and recovered from the virus.
Bhattacharya and his colleagues preliminarily estimated that between 48,000 and 81,000 people had already been infected in Santa Clara County by early April, which would mean that COVID-19 infections were “50-85-fold more than the number of confirmed cases.” Based on these data the researchers calculated that toward the end of April “a hundred deaths out of 48,000-81,000 infections corresponds to an infection fatality rate of 0.12-0.2%.” As I optimistically reported at the time, that would imply that COVID-19’s lethality was not much different than for seasonal influenza.
Bhattacharya and his colleagues conducted a similar antibody survey in Los Angeles County. That study similarly asserted that COVID-19 infections were much more widespread than reported cases. The study estimated 2.8 to 5.6 percent of the residents of Los Angeles County had been infected by early April. That translates to approximately 221,000 to 442,000 adults in the county who have had the infection. “That estimate is 28 to 55 times higher than the 7,994 confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported to the county by the time of the study in early April,” noted the accompanying press release. “The number of COVID-related deaths in the county has now surpassed 600.” These estimates would imply a relatively low infection fatality rate of between 0.14 and 0.27 percent.
Unfortunately, from the vantage of 14 months, those hopeful results have not been borne out. Santa Clara County public health officials report that there have been 119,712 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 so far. If infections were really being underreported by 50-fold, that would suggest that roughly 6 million Santa Clara residents would by now have been infected by the coronavirus. The population of the county is just under 2 million. Alternatively, extrapolating a 50-fold undercount would imply that when 40,000 diagnosed cases were reported on July 11, 2020, all 2 million people living in Santa Clara County had been infected by that date.
Los Angeles County reports 1,247,742 diagnosed COVID-19 cases cumulatively. Again, if infections were really being underreported 28-fold, that would imply that roughly 35 million Angelenos out of a population of just over 10 million would have been infected with the virus by now. Again turning the 28-fold estimate on its head, that would imply that all 10 million Angelenos would have been infected when 360,000 cases had been diagnosed on November 21, 2020.
COVID-19 cases are, of course, being undercounted. Data scientist Youyang Gu has been consistently more accurate than many of the other researchers parsing COVID-19 pandemic trends. Gu estimates that over the course of the pandemic, U.S. COVID-19 infections have roughly been 4-fold greater than diagnosed cases. Applying that factor to the number of reported COVID-19 cases would yield an estimate of 480,000 and 5,000,000 total infections in Santa Clara and Los Angeles respectively. If those are ballpark accurate, that would mean that the COVID-19 infection fatality rate in Santa Clara is 0.46 percent and is 0.49 percent in Los Angeles. Again, applying a 4-fold multiplier to take account of undercounted infections, those are both just about where the U.S. infection fatality rate of 0.45 percent is now.
The upshot is that, so far, we have ended up about half-way between the best case and worst case scenarios sketched out at the beginning of the pandemic.
The country is reopening. What does the future hold?
The story of the American pandemic has unfolded in three chapters.The first began last January, when the coronavirus emerged and the world was plunged into uncertainty about how covid-19 could be treated, how the virus spread, and when it might be defeated. The second started on the morning of November 9, 2020, when Pfizer-BioNTech announced the extraordinary efficacy of its vaccine. Those results made clear that this pandemic would end not through infection but vaccination. Our goals shifted from merely slowing the spread to beginning immunization as quickly as possible. In America, much of the past half year has been devoted to administering vaccines and gathering evidence on how well they work in the real world.
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ushered in the American pandemic’s third chapter. The agency announced that vaccinated people could go without masks or social distancing indoors and outside, in crowds large and small. It carved out a few exceptions—for hospitals, public transportation, and the like—and noted that people still needed to obey federal and local laws. But the broad message was that vaccinated Americans could resume their pre-pandemic lives. The C.D.C. is an agency known for caution, and its new guidance shocked many public-health experts; just two weeks earlier, it had issued far more restrictive recommendations. During the same period, a survey of nearly six hundred epidemiologists found that more than three-quarters of them believed that indoor mask-wearing might remain necessary for another year or more. Still, immediately after the announcement, a number of states lifted their mask mandates. Others will surely follow, as the pressure to return to normal grows. America is now moving swiftly toward reopening.
Despite the C.D.C.’s early stumbles on communication, masks, and tests, it remains perhaps the world’s preëminent public-health agency. Its recommendations carry unparalleled scientific force in the U.S. and beyond. Ultimately, the C.D.C.’s decision reflects real shifts in the weight of the evidence on several fundamental epidemiological questions: Are the vaccines as effective as they were in the trials? Can they protect us against the coronavirus variants? And do they prevent not just illness but transmission? The answers to these questions give us good reason to think that the pandemic’s newest chapter will be its last. Read The New Yorker’s complete news coverage and analysis of the coronavirus pandemic.
On the first question, the nationwide rollout of covid-19 vaccines has proved, beyond any doubt, that they are astonishingly effective at preventing serious illness, even for the most vulnerable people. So-called breakthrough infections, in which the virus weaves its way around some of an individual’s immune system, do occur. But such infections are extremely rare, and—because a person almost always has some effective antibodies and other immune-system defenses—they usually cause mild or no symptoms. In one study, the C.D.C. examined post-vaccination infections among nearly fifteen thousand nursing-home residents and staff members, and discovered only two covid-19 hospitalizations and one death. Another study, involving half a million health-care workers from around the country, found that getting two shots reduced the risk of a symptomatic infection by ninety-four per cent. Moving forward, we should expect to continue seeing breakthrough infections from time to time—but, for the most part, we shouldn’t worry about them. (At the same time, the covid vaccines have proved exceptionally safe. Few dangerous side effects have been linked to the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, and the over-all risk of concerning blood clots after receiving Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is rare—as of last week, when more than nine million doses had been administered, there were thirty confirmed cases.)
The most striking vaccine-efficacy statistic draws on data shared by state governments. Around a hundred and thirty million Americans are fully vaccinated, and the C.D.C. has said that it has received reports of fewer than fourteen hundredcovid-19 hospitalizations and three hundred deaths among them. This means that, after vaccination, one’s chances of dying of covid-19 are currently about two in a million, with the likelihood of being hospitalized only slightly higher. Statistics reported by hospitals tend to be accurate; still, even if state governments have missed a few cases here and there, the results are staggeringly good. “The evidence on vaccines just keeps getting better and better,” Robert Wachter, a physician and the chair of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told me. “When the trial results first came out, I thought, They can’t actually be this good. The real world is always messier than the trials. What we’ve learned since then is that the vaccines are probably even more spectacular than we initially believed.”
The answer to the second question—whether the vaccines work against the major coronavirus variants—is also now clear. Earlier this month, a study conducted in Qatar, where the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants predominate, found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was ninety-seven per cent effective at preventing severe disease. Vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson also appear to be highly effective against the variants; in fact, these vaccines are already successfully fighting them here in the United States. The B.1.1.7 variant, which is vastly more contagious than the original virus and caused a devastating surge in the U.K. this past winter, now accounts for three-quarters of new U.S. cases—and yet, largely thanks to vaccination, daily infections in this country have fallen by nearly ninety per cent since their peak in January, and are now lower than at any point in the past eight months. The existence of more contagious variants isn’t a reason to doubt the vaccines but to vaccinate people as quickly as possible.
As for the final question—whether vaccinated people can spread the virus to others, especially unvaccinated people, including children—the evidence is similarly encouraging. Because vaccinated people are unlikely to contract the virus, the vast majority won’t be passing it on. And even the small number of vaccinated people who experience breakthrough infections have much less of the virus circulating in their bodies, and may be less infectious. Real-world data from Israel, which has mounted one of the world’s fastest and most effective vaccination campaigns, is instructive. The country’s progress in immunizing its adults has been linked to significant declines in infections among unvaccinated people; according to one preliminary estimate, each twenty-percentage-point increase in adult vaccination rates reduces infections for unvaccinated children by half. When vaccinated people remove their masks, they pose little threat to others, and they face little peril themselves.
The shift toward reopening is not without risk. The first issue is timing. Less than half of Americans have received even one shot of a covid-19 vaccine, and only around four in ten have been fully vaccinated. This means that the majority of the country remains susceptible to infection and disease. Meanwhile, the pace of vaccinations has slowed: in April, the U.S. was routinely vaccinating about three million people per day, but the daily average is now nearly two million. It’s unclear whether the new guidance will encourage or deter unvaccinated Americans from getting immunized. In a recent survey, unvaccinated Republicans said that they would be nearly twenty per cent more likely to get the shots if it meant that they wouldn’t have to wear a mask anymore. We’ll now find out how they really feel.
Vaccine hesitancy is only part of the picture. Some thirty million Americans—a group larger than anti-vaxxers or the vaccine-hesitant—say that they want to get immunized but haven’t yet done so. Some face language barriers, or fear immigration problems; others have difficulty navigating the health system, or can’t take time off from work. Many of the willing-but-unvaccinated are working-class Americans; four in five don’t have a college degree. The Biden Administration has sent billions of dollars to health centers serving low-income populations, offered tax credits to businesses that provide paid time off for employees to get immunized, and helped assemble thousands of volunteers—known as the covid-19 Community Corps—to assist with vaccine outreach to underserved populations. States, too, are trying to reduce barriers to vaccination, and offering incentives—including payments in Maryland, a lottery in Ohio, and a “Shot and a Beer” program in New Jersey—for residents who remain on the fence. There are, in short, real efforts under way to sway the vaccine-hesitant and make vaccines more accessible.
Still, the new C.D.C. guidance makes these efforts even more urgent. Until now, unvaccinated people have been shielded from high levels of viral exposure by government mandates and social norms that have kept their friends, neighbors, and colleagues masked and distanced, to varying degrees. But, in the coming weeks, those protections will likely erode. For unvaccinated Americans, this could be the most dangerous moment in the pandemic. In most contexts, there is no reliable mechanism for verifying who has and hasn’t been vaccinated. Inevitably, against the C.D.C.’s advice, many unvaccinated people will resume normal life, too, threatening their own health and that of others. When asked how businesses are to know which customers can enter unmasked, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, told CNN, “They will not be able to know. You’re going to be depending on people being honest enough to say whether they were vaccinated or not.”
“Unvaccinated people are now going to have much higher levels of exposure,” Wachter told me. “That’s especially true in places with lots of community spread and in places where more contagious variants are circulating.” Wachter suggested that the C.D.C. could be making an epidemiological bet. The move “will cause some additional covid cases that otherwise would not have occurred,” he said—but, “if it leads to even a small uptick in vaccination, it will save lives in aggregate.”
Since the start of the pandemic’s second chapter, public-health officials have been working to prevent a catastrophic collision between the ship of reopening and the iceberg of the unvaccinated. By slowing the speed of the ship or shrinking the size of the iceberg, we have sought to reduce the force of the collision. But barring a hundred-per-cent vaccination rate, or something close to it—an outcome that the U.S. was never likely to achieve—a crash of some sort has been inevitable.India’s collision has been titanic—it reopened with a population of more than a billion, even though hardly anyone was vaccinated. In the U.S., the situation is different. Our iceberg has been melting, and we’ve been approaching it slowly. Now we’re taking off the brakes.
The C.D.C. issues guidance, not laws; there are several quantitative measures that states, counties, cities, companies, and individuals can consult in pacing their reopening and squaring the agency’s broad recommendations with local realities. A community’s immunization rate is perhaps the most obvious statistic to track. Experts have argued for meeting a seventy-per-cent immunity threshold before relaxing masking and distancing requirements. No states have got there yet, although some, such as Vermont and Maine, are well on their way. The Biden Administration has said that it hopes to hit the seventy-per-cent target for first shots by the Fourth of July.
Because the vaccines prevent almost all cases of severe covid-19, the number of covid-19 hospitalizations is another good metric to watch. “With vaccines, cases become uncoupled from severe disease,” Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease doctor at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied asymptomatic coronavirus transmission, told me. Gandhi was among the first researchers to show that masks protect not just others but wearers, too; when we spoke, before the C.D.C.’s announcement, she said that, in her view, most precautions could end when half of Americans had received their first shot and covid-19 hospitalizations had fallen below sixteen thousand nationally, or about five per hundred thousand people. (At the peak of most flu seasons, the U.S. records five to ten influenza hospitalizations per hundred thousand.) Hospitalizations appear to be falling, unevenly, across the country. However, there are currently thirty thousand Americans hospitalized with covid-19—roughly a quarter of the January peak, but still about twice Gandhi’s threshold.
Herd immunity offers a third benchmark for reopening. The idea is that, once about eighty per cent of the population has been vaccinated or infected, the virus will struggle to spread. Recently, some experts have argued that we might never get to herd immunity because of variants, vaccine hesitancy, and the fact that children under twelve, who make up some fifteen per cent of the U.S. population, are unlikely to be immunized for some time. But the C.D.C.’s recommendation could change the equation. As states lift restrictions and unvaccinated people face higher levels of exposure, more of them are likely to get infected, pushing us closer to the herd immunity threshold. In all likelihood, the U.S. will be able to reach sixty-per-cent vaccination in the coming weeks; meanwhile, perhaps a third of Americans have already been infected. Even assuming significant overlap between the two groups, the combination of vaccination and infection is likely to make it harder for the virus to find new hosts. Marc Lipsitch, the director of Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, emphasized that, because some parts of the country may reach herd immunity, or something close to it, before others—Connecticut’s current covid-19 immunization rate, for instance, is nearly twice Mississippi’s—unvaccinated adults will face different levels of risk depending on where they live. “There won’t be one national end,” Lipsitch told me. “We’re going to see a fundamental change in terms of what it means to live in this country, but there’s also going to be a lot of local variation.”
Covid-19 deaths give us another way of tracking the pandemic. Experts have argued that the U.S., with a population of three hundred and thirty-two million, should aim for fewer than a hundred coronavirus deaths daily—roughly the toll of a typical flu season. Right now, America is seeing about six hundred covid-19 deaths each day; according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which generates one of the country’s most widely cited pandemic models, that number will likely fall to about a hundred in August. “Things will look very good this summer,” Christopher Murray, the director of the I.H.M.E., told me. “A lot of people will think that we’re done, that it’s all over. But what happens in the fall is the tricky part.” Murray believes that a confluence of factors—the spread of variants, in-person schooling, meaningful numbers of still-unvaccinated people, and the seasonality of the virus—will produce a small winter spike, concentrated in communities with low vaccination rates. It won’t be the apocalyptic surge of New York City in the spring of 2020—or, more recently, those of India or Brazil—but, each week, several thousand unvaccinated Americans could die.
It’s possible, given all this, to imagine a plausible scenario for the conclusion of the American pandemic. The coronavirus disease toll continues to fall throughout the summer. States do away with mask mandates and capacity restrictions; people increasingly return to bars, spin classes, and airports, then to stadiums, movie theatres, and concerts. By midsummer, in communities with high vaccination rates, covid-19 starts to fade from view. In those places, even people who remain unvaccinated are protected, because so little of the virus circulates. But, in other parts of the country, low immunization rates combined with reopening allow the disease to register again. Hospitals aren’t overwhelmed—there’s no need to build new I.C.U.s or call in extra staff—but the collision between ship and iceberg is forceful, and each week thousands of people fall ill and hundreds die. Some victims are vaccine-hesitant; others were unable, for whatever reason, to get vaccinated. Still, perhaps unfairly, these outbreaks come with an aura of culpability: to people in safe parts of the country, the ill seem like smokers who get lung cancer.
In the fall, many unvaccinated children return to school. Scattered infections among them capture headlines, but serious illnesses are exceedingly rare; the overwhelming majority of children remain safe, and, with time, they, too, are immunized. The U.S. approaches something like herd immunity. Some people may still fall ill and die of covid-19—perhaps they are immunocompromised, elderly, or just unlucky—but, by and large, America has gained the upper hand. Meanwhile, in poor nations with few vaccines, the pandemic continues. As crisis wanes in one country, catastrophe ignites in another. Every so often, we learn of a new variant that’s thought to be more contagious, lethal, or vaccine-resistant than the rest; we rush to institute travel bans, only to learn that the variant, or a close cousin, is already circulating in the U.S. and has been largely subdued by the vaccines, as all previous variants have been. In the fall, Americans line up for covid booster shots alongside flu vaccines. The pandemic’s final chapter comes to a close not through official decree but with the gradual realization that covid-19 no longer dominates our lives.
Reopening a country after a pandemic isn’t like flipping a giant switch. It’s more like lighting a series of candles, illuminating one part, then another, until the whole place shines. Many states, counties, cities, and businesses will further loosen their restrictions; others will wait. Communities and individuals will approach the end of the crisis differently, as they’ve approached the rest of it. Some unvaccinated people have already been forgoing precautions; on the other hand, I’ve been vaccinated for months and, since the C.D.C. announcement, have yet to leave my mask behind—whether because of a lingering, irrational fear or simply to avoid dirty looks, I can’t say. Social norms take time to change, even when one of the world’s most respected public-health agencies is telling you to change them.
The pandemic has created not just chaos and suffering but uncertainty. It’s easy, therefore, to be doubtful about the fortunate position in which we seem to find ourselves now. As a physician, I spent the early months of the pandemic caring for covid-19 patients in New York City; they streamed into the hospital day after day, deathly ill. We raced to build covid wards, I.C.U.s, and hospice units. At the time, we had little to offer. There were no proven therapies, and certainly no vaccines. There were weeks when thousands of New Yorkers died, many of them alone in their final moments, while more people were dying across the world. I felt fear, anxiety, and sometimes despair. The scale of the damage—the lives lost, businesses shuttered, dreams shattered, children orphaned, seniors isolated—was crushing, and the path forward was both frightening and unknown.
As good news began to arrive, I greeted it with a blend of guarded skepticism and cautious optimism. First came evidence that outdoor transmission was unlikely. Then we learned that contaminated surfaces rarely spread disease; that some patients can breathe better simply by lying on their bellies; that P.P.E. works; that dexamethasone saves lives. We discovered that immunity lasts many months, perhaps years; that repeat infections are unlikely; and that variants present a surmountable challenge.
Now, study after study, in country after country, has shown that the vaccines are capable of transforming a lethal pathogen into a manageable threat. Examining and reëxamining the vaccine results, I’ve gone through stages, too—caution, hope, and, finally, clarity. We really are that close. The beginning of the end is here.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have been warning of the dangers of postponed health care services. In January, the American Cancer Society, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, and 73 other organizations, including many major health care systems, issued a statement stressing the urgency of preventive care. “We urge people across the country to talk with their health care provider to resume regular primary care checkups, recommended cancer screening, and evidence-based cancer treatment (PDF) to lessen the negative impact the pandemic is having on identifying and treating people with cancer,” the groups said.
That was sound advice not everyone could follow, as ProPublica’s Duaa Eldeib reported last week in a tragic story about Teresa Ruvalcaba. The 48-year-old single mother of three worked for 22 years at a candy factory on Chicago’s West Side. During the pandemic, disaster struck. “For more than six months, the 48-year-old factory worker had tried to ignore the pain and inflammation in her chest. She was afraid of visiting a doctor during the pandemic, afraid of missing work, afraid of losing her job, her home, her ability to take care of her three children,” Eldeib reported.
“Even though her chest felt as if it was on fire, she kept working. She didn’t want to get COVID-19 at a doctor’s office or the emergency room, and she was so busy she didn’t have much time to think about her symptoms,” Eldeib wrote.
Ruvalcaba’s pandemic fears were typical of patients across the nation, surveys revealed. A 2020 CHCF poll of 2,249 California adults revealed that even when people wanted to see a doctor for an urgent health problem, one-third did not receive care. Nearly half of those surveyed didn’t receive care for their nonurgent health problems.
Nationally, more than one in three people delayed or skipped care because they were worried about exposure to Covid-19, or because their doctor limited services, according to an Urban Institute analysis of a September 2020 survey.
The toll of this disruption in care — the forgone cancer screening, the chest pain that isn’t reported — will devastate some patients and families. Ruvalcaba had to face a diagnosis with a terrible prognosis, inflammatory breast cancer. “If she would have come six months earlier, it could have been just surgery, chemo and done,” Ruvalcaba’s doctor told Eldeib. “Now she’s incurable.”
“Unfortunately, we know we’re going to see some tragedies related to the delays,” Wiley Fowler, an oncologist at Dignity Health in Sacramento, told Ibarra.
Consequences of Delayed Care
Public health messages early in the pandemic urged people to avoid public places, including doctor’s offices. In April, as Hayley Smith noted in a Los Angeles Times story, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services “both published guidelines recommending the postponement of elective and nonurgent procedures, including ‘low-risk cancer’ screenings, amid the first wave of the pandemic.”
Patients and doctors listened. Appointments were canceled. “Nonurgent” procedures encompassing a wide array of treatments and operations, including cancer surgeries, were delayed.
Preventive cancer screenings dropped 94% over the first four months of 2020, Eldeib reported. The National Cancer Institute expects to see 10,000 preventable deaths over the next decade because of pandemic-related delays in diagnosis and treatment of breast and colorectal cancer. Screenings for these cancers, which account for about one in six cancer deaths, are routine features of preventive care.
I know I should get another check soon, but the anxiety of COVID feels like more of a priority than the anxiety of cervical cancer.
—Molly Codner, a Southern Californian who received an abnormal Pap smear last summer
In California, cancer deaths have remained roughly the same as prepandemic rates, but that stability is not expected to last. Based on the National Cancer Institute data, Ibarra calculates that an additional 1,200 Californians will die from breast and colon cancer. The National Cancer Institute estimate is conservative “because it only accounts for a six-month delay in care, and people are postponing care longer than that,” Ibarra reported.
Nationally, death rates from cancer are expected to increase in a year or two. Slow-growing cancers will remain treatable despite a delayed diagnosis, Norman Sharpless, MD, director of the National Cancer Institute, told Eldeib. Yet for conditions like Ruvalcaba’s inflammatory breast cancer, delayed care can be disastrous.
Women, People of Color Disproportionately Affected
For women across Southern California, appointments have been delayed, exams canceled, and screenings postponed during the pandemic, Smith reported in the Los Angeles Times. “Some are voluntarily opting out for fear of encountering the virus,” Smith wrote, “while others have had their appointments canceled by health care providers rerouting resources to COVID-19 patients.”
Before Pap smears became part of routine American health care, cervical cancer was one of the deadliest cancers for women. Today, as many as 93% of cervical cancer cases are preventable, according to the CDC, and screenings are a crucial component of preventive care. Yet during the first phase of California’s stay-at-home orders, cervical cancer screenings dropped 80% among the 1.5 million women in Kaiser Permanente’s regional network, Smith wrote.
The effects of the pandemic shutdown extended beyond delayed Pap smears. Women who spoke to Smith said that “mammograms, fertility treatments and even pain prevention procedures have been waylaid by the pandemic.”
Sometimes, obstacles other than the pandemic are continuing to interfere with access to care. One woman had an appointment delayed and then lost her job and her health insurance, Smith reported.
“Molly Codner, 30, has needed a checkup ever since she received an abnormal Pap smear last summer,” Smith wrote, “but like many Southern Californians, the trauma of the last year still weighs heavily on her mind: Nearly a dozen people she knows have had COVID-19.” Codner told Smith that “I know I should get another check soon, but the anxiety of COVID feels like more of a priority than the anxiety of cervical cancer.”
People who face disparities in treatment and care are most likely to be hard hit by pandemic delays. That includes Black people, who were already more likely to die from cancer than any other racial group. Cancer also is the leading cause of death among Latinx people. Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis for Latinx women. Overall, more Americans die of heart disease.
Black adults are more likely than White or Latinx adults to delay or forgo care, according to researchers from the Urban Institute.
Telehealth Solved Access Issues for Some, Not All
Telehealth was a boon for patients during the pandemic year. Yet, as Ibarra notes, “there’s only so much that doctors and nurses can do through a screen.” Dental visits, mammograms, and annual wellness checks were also put on hold by the pandemic.
Latinx, Asian, and Black respondents did not use telehealth as often as White respondents. USC researchers attribute these differences to “disparities in income, education and access to any kind of health care.”
Researchers at the Urban Institute report similar findings: “Black and Latinx adults were more likely than White adults to report having wanted a telehealth visit but not receiving one since the pandemic began, and that difficulties getting a telehealth visit were also more common among adults who were in poorer health or had chronic health conditions.”
After controlling for socioeconomic factors and health status, patients with limited English were half as likely to use telehealth compared to fluent English-speaking patients, the Urban Institute said. “Much work remains to ensure all patients have equitable access to remote care during and after the pandemic,” the researchers wrote.
Whether telehealth is conducted by video or phone may be crucial to ensuring access to care. A study of telehealth use at Federally Qualified Health Centers in California in 2020 found that “more primary care visits among health centers in the study occurred via audio-only visits (49%) than in-person (48%) or via video (3%). Audio-only visits comprised more than 90% of all telemedicine visits.”
Public health efforts might need to focus on two goals at the same time as the US recovers from the pandemic: increasing vaccine uptake to keep COVID-19 in check and proactively managing the fallout from delayed care.
“As we focus on recovery, we have to ensure that we get vaccinated,” Efrain Talamantes, a primary care physician in East Los Angeles, told Ibarra. “But also that we have a concerted effort to manage the chronic diseases that haven’t received the attention required to avoid complications.”