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U.S. Covid vaccination rates rise as Americans in hard-hit states rush to get shots amid delta fears

Registered nurse Darryl Hana administers a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to a person at a three-day vaccination clinic at Providence Wilmington Wellness and Activity Center on July 29, 2021 in Wilmington, California.

Mario Tama | Getty Images

The pace of U.S. vaccinations is rising again as the delta variant drives a new surge in cases across the U.S., especially in states with the lowest vaccination rates and, not so coincidentally, the worst outbreaks.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows nearly 800,000 shots were recorded nationwide on Sunday, the highest single-day total in weeks. The seven-day average of reported vaccinations, including first and second shots, has risen by 16% over the past week to 615,000 shots per day as of Thursday.

The stark contrast in hospitalizations and deaths between the vaccinated and unvaccinated has become clear in recent weeks and may be convincing people on the fence about getting the shots, according to Jen Kates, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. The overwhelming majority of serious Covid cases — 97% of hospital admissions, and 99.5% of Covid deaths — are occurring among those who are not vaccinated, U.S. health officials say.

“Cases are rising, and almost all of those who are hospitalized and dying are unvaccinated,” she said. “The data are right there, and I think people are realizing that vaccines are our best bet at controlling this.”

The number of first vaccine doses has climbed more sharply than the overall rate in recent days, representing new people getting their very first shots,. An average of about 390,000 first doses were administered every day over the past seven days as of Thursday, according to the CDC, up 31% from a week ago.

“That is the marker you want to see — the first doses trending up,” said Kates, because it represents new people getting their first shots. That includes people receiving a first shot of either the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one shot of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

The pace of daily shots remains far from peak levels, when more than 3 million daily vaccinations, counting both doses, were being reported in mid-April. But the upward trend in first doses is encouraging, public officials say.

Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have reported an increase in average daily first doses compared to the prior week, up from 37 states with increasing rates of first doses a week ago.

States with the worst outbreaks are seeing the biggest jumps in vaccination rates, a CNBC analysis of CDC and Johns Hopkins University data shows. Across the ten states with the highest levels of average daily new cases per capita, first doses are up 46% week over week, significantly higher than the nationwide increase of 31%. That group includes Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, Alabama, Nevada, Oklahoma, Alaska, and Georgia.

“Y’all, we’re going to have a rough few weeks,” Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs told reporters last week. The state has fully vaccinated just 34.4% of its population compared with 49.4% of the total U.S. population.

“Delta is hitting us very strongly. We anticipate that we’re going to continue to put additional pressure on the healthcare system,” he said, noting that there were 13 hospitals across the state that had “zero ICU beds.” The outbreak there makes a strong case to get the shots. Some 93% of the state’s Covid cases and 89% of the deaths in the past month are among unvaccinated individuals, he said.

The delta variant is sweeping across the country and leading to a new surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, especially in states with poor vaccination records. It is significantly more contagious than the original strain. And, unlike the ancestral Covid strain, it’s transmitted as easily by both unvaccinated and fully vaccinated people who have contracted the virus, federal health officials have warned.

Many of the states seeing a dramatic rise in vaccine rates have high levels of community infection and low levels of vaccinations. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia rank among the ten least-vaccinated states in the country.

State health officials attribute the rising rates to a combination of factors including fears of the more contagious delta variant.

“Last week, we doubled the number of people who initiated the vaccine,” Dr. Joseph Kanter, medical director of the Louisiana Department of Health, told reporters in a call hosted by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials on Thursday. “And this week we’re on pace to double that number again. So we’re on pace to quadruple our rate of vaccinations over two weeks.”

In Alabama, first doses have jumped 62% over the past week to about 7,400 per day. It has the fifth-lowest vaccination rates in the nation among people 12 and older, while its outbreak, which is averaging 35 new cases per day per 100,000 residents, is the sixth worst in the U.S.

Alabama health officer Dr. Karen Landers said concerns over the delta variant, along with education efforts and partnerships with local leaders, were the likely reasons behind heightened interest in the jab.

“We continue to message the importance of being vaccinated and we know that the increase in variants and certainly the delta variant is more contagious,” she said. “We feel like we’re seeing an increase in persons understanding that need.”

Still, Landers said, vaccine misinformation makes the progress slow going. Many people don’t understand the regulatory drug approval process and are waiting for the FDA to grant full approval of the vaccines before getting the shots. Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines have all been temporarily authorized on an emergency basis and are awaiting final approval.

“We know that many of our persons in Alabama are still not listening to the info we’re providing in terms of scientific evidence,” she said. “We must continue to combat misinformation in our state.”

Conspiracy theories have also run amok, interfering with vaccine efforts in neighboring Mississippi, local health officials say.

“We hear it all, from the microchip insertion to the depopulation plan using the vaccine to magnetize people. I mean you name it, we’ve heard it,” Mississippi health department Chief Medical Officer Dr. Dan Edney told reporters last week.

A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis published in early July shows that the gap in vaccination rates between counties that voted for President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump has widened throughout the course of the vaccine rollout, with Democrats much more likely to report having been vaccinated than Republicans.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey recently joined Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former White House press secretary and Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a growing chorus of Republican figures encouraging voters to get vaccinated in recent days.

“It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down,” she said last week.

A healthcare worker at a drive-thru site setup by Miami-Dade and Nomi Health in Tropical Park prepares to administer a COVID-19 vaccine on July 26, 2021 in Miami, Florida.

Joe Raedle | Getty Images

State health officials in Texas, where the share of the eligible population with a shot is about five percentage points below the U.S. level of 66.9%, say the danger of the delta variant is pushing people to get vaccinated. Average daily case counts in the state are up 72% over the past week, according to Hopkins data.  

“We’ve seen an increase in vaccine doses administered over the last couple of weeks,” Texas Department of State Health Services director of media relations Chris van Deusen wrote in an email. “We’ve been talking a lot about how serious the situation is with the Delta variant as cases and hospitalizations increase, and people seem to be getting the message.”

California saw a 16% weekly increase in the number of people getting their first vaccine dose, Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters Monday, including a rise in vulnerable zip codes that have been “most impacted by this pandemic.”

“In part because of delta and upticks in numbers of cases and hospitalizations, we’re now seeing increased interest in Covid vaccination in selective areas and states,” said Dr. Arthur Reingold, the division head of epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Public officials hope the trend continues to rise governments and businesses up the pressure on employees and customers to get the shots.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs is requiring Covid vaccinations for all health-care personnel who work in Veterans Health Administration facilities to be fully immunized. Governors in California and New York announced plans in the last week to mandate vaccines for state workers or face stringent health protocols. President Joe Biden laid out a similar federal policy Thursday and urged governors to offer $100 payments to people who get their first vaccine doses. Google was one of the first major employers to say it’s mandating vaccines for anyone returning to the office this fall.

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