Experts are warning that the greatest threat to the pandemic recovery in the United States are the large swaths of Americans who remain unvaccinated.
Over the past few weeks, the U.S. has seen a surge of coronavirus cases across the country in the wake of the highly infectious delta variant. The new strain has particularly wreaked havoc in states with low vaccination rates.
The state of Missouri has recently become a U.S. hot spot, averaging more than 2,100 cases per day over the last seven-day period, according to data from The New York Times. About 41 percent of the state population is fully vaccinated.
Florida, Arkansas, Louisiana and Nevada have also seen an increase in coronavirus cases.
The nationwide vaccination rate has also dropped following the mad dash for the vaccine earlier in the year. Health experts warn that unvaccinated individuals pose a risk to the country, and could spread the disease until other, vaccine-resistant strains arise.
Some say the U.S. has missed its chance at outrunning the delta strain.
“I think we probably could have done that here in the U.S., if we hadn’t slowed our vaccination rates so much,” Andy Pekosz, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University, told The Hill.
“But I think it’s important also to emphasize that variants will emerge anywhere the virus is replicating in people to a great degree. And globally, there are so many places where this virus is just freely infecting people and replicating and it’s those situations that are going to be generating variants at a higher frequency.”
The delta variant isn’t even the only variant to worry about.
The lambda strain, first detected in Peru, is now present in the U.S. The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated this strain as a “variant of interest,” the designation beneath that of a “variant of concern,” like that of the delta variant.
Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Pekosz told The Hill that data on the lambda variant is limited at the moment, but what information is available suggests that it is similar to delta in that it is more transmissible than previously dominant strains like the alpha and beta variants. They added that vaccines should still offer protection against it.
At the same time, the lambda variant is not spreading as quickly as the delta variant.
“There’s a lot that we do not yet know about the lambda variants, including compared to the delta,” said Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University.
“Is it more contagious? This is a really important question, because when there is a new variant, and it’s more contagious, it displaces the previous variant. But if there is already a very contagious variant and you have other variants that are appearing as they are all the time, they probably are not going to take over,” Wen said.
Wen, who previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner, expressed frustration that vaccinations have not been properly incentivized even when she warned earlier in May that the window for intervention was quickly narrowing.
“If we had tied vaccinations to reopening policy, we had a much higher chance of achieving the kinds of immunity that we needed,” Wen said.
Pekosz opined that if the U.S. had reached a 90 percent vaccination rate earlier this year, the nation could have avoided the current situation.
“We stalled at a place where essentially half the population has immunity and half doesn’t and that’s a really awful place to be from a vaccine perspective,” Pekosz said.
According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 69 percent of adults in the U.S. have received at least one dose. The country has still yet to reach President Biden‘s 70 percent vaccination goal, weeks after his initial July 4 deadline.
All health experts who spoke with The Hill agreed that the biggest challenge that the U.S. faces to overcome the pandemic is vaccine hesitancy.
The large groups of people holding out from vaccinations pose a significant threat because they are not immune, and are still capable of spreading COVID-19 and new variants. They added another major issue is that unvaccinated people are behaving as though they were vaccinated, going without masks in public and attending large indoor and outdoor gatherings that they should avoid.
However, Pekosz added that the progress that has been made is substantial.
“I always want to emphasize the positive, which is right now the vaccine seems to be working well against the delta variant. And that should be something that people are using to get motivated to get the vaccine,” he said. “I think that’s the critical thing to get across to everybody.”