On Monday, the hypercontagious Delta variant finally did what Joe Biden couldn’t: convinced 70 percent of U.S. adults to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Biden originally aimed to administer at least one vaccine dose to 70 percent of Americans 18 and older by July 4. But widespread vaccine hesitancy — particularly in conservative parts of the country — prevented the U.S. from meeting his deadline.
Now Delta appears to be breaking down some of that resistance.
Nearly all of the recent news about Delta has been discouraging. There have been more cases because of it (up 150 percent nationwide over the last 14 days, driven mainly by rapid spread in undervaccinated hot spots like Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi). There have been more hospitalizations — Florida, for example, just broke its daily record, set before vaccines were available. There have been more deaths, though fewer than in previous waves. And there have been more breakthrough infections and transmission among vaccinated Americans than expected — which means there have been more local mask mandates, an unwelcome step backward.
But one bright spot — perhaps the only bright spot — has been vaccinations. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, the U.S reported an additional 468,000 vaccine doses Monday, just enough to propel the number of Americans who’ve received at least one shot past 180 million. What’s encouraging about that number is that it caps four straight weeks of slow but steady gains in America’s vaccination rate, which has risen from about 430,000 doses per day to 550,000 doses per day over the last month.
First doses, meanwhile, have risen even faster — by about 75 percent during the same period. More than 5 million Americans have been newly vaccinated in the last two weeks alone. And best of all, these gains have been concentrated in the undervaccinated states that Delta is hitting the hardest — strongly suggesting the variant’s ravages are the reason former holdouts are finally taking COVID seriously and deciding to protect themselves and others with a safe and effective vaccine.
Consider the data. Over the last two weeks, COVID cases and hospitalizations have more than tripled in Louisiana. But at the same time, more than 11,000 Louisianans a day are now beginning vaccination — up from about 2,600 per day one month ago, and the highest rate since mid-April. Same goes for Arkansas. Other hot spots such as Missouri, Florida and Texas are now vaccinating more new people each day than they have since mid-May. Last week alone, Louisiana registered a 114 percent increase in uptake, while Arkansas increased by 96 percent, Alabama by 65 percent and Missouri by 49 percent.
“We’ve seen our daily new administrations double, and this week they’re on pace to triple or quadruple,” Louisiana State Health Officer Joseph Kanter recently told Bloomberg. “Everybody knows someone who is sick right now. Those people who are not real anti-vaxxers but were just not real confident are saying, ‘I’m not waiting a day longer.’”
The pattern is consistent across the country. Last week was the third week that states with the highest numbers of COVID cases also had the highest vaccination numbers, the White House announced Friday. And according to an extensive Bloomberg analysis, the 20 percent of counties that were “vaccinating the most slowly six weeks ago are now leading the country in the number of people starting vaccination each day, helping drive a national trend of more vaccinations.”
To be sure, laggard states across the Southern and Central parts of the U.S. still have a long way to go before they match the daily vaccination records they set in March or April — let alone the much higher full-vaccination rates now shielding Northeastern and Western states such as Vermont (67 percent), Massachusetts (64 percent), Washington (58 percent), New York (57 percent) and even California (53 percent) from the worst of Delta.
Among the states that still trail far behind are Alabama (34 percent), Arkansas (36 percent), Louisiana (37 percent), Missouri (41 percent) and Texas (44 percent). Even in Florida, which has fully vaccinated 49 percent of its residents, the counties now suffering the biggest outbreaks tend to have full-vaccination rates in the 20s or 30s. That’s a lot of ground to make up.
There may also be a ceiling on how many new people are ultimately willing to get vaccinated because of Delta. While 15 percent of unvaccinated Americans said last month that Delta’s spread was making them more likely to get vaccinated, according to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted from July 13 to 15, another 12 percent actually said Delta made them less likely to get a shot. A full 73 percent said it made “no difference.” More than half of unvaccinated U.S. adults (51 percent) said they would “never” get vaccinated.
Likewise, full protection from the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine doesn’t kick in until five or six weeks after the first dose, and Delta is especially good at evading partial immunity — so today’s shots probably won’t do much to blunt America’s vertiginous surge.
Still, better late than never. In the long run, every shot helps bring the U.S. pandemic one step closer to petering out — and Monday’s news that undervaccinated states have finally helped the country hit a key milestone proves that even the darkest clouds can have a silver lining.
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