The U.S. on Monday finally reached President Joe Biden’s goal of getting at least one COVID-19 shot in the arms of 70% of American adults — a month late and amid a fierce surge by the delta variant that is swamping hospitals and leading to new mask rules and mandatory vaccinations around the country.
Louisiana ordered nearly everyone, vaccinated or not, to wear masks again in all indoor public settings, including schools and colleges, and other cities and states likewise moved to reinstate precautions to counter a crisis blamed on the fast-spreading variant and stubborn resistance to getting the vaccine.
“As fast as we are opening up units, they’re being filled with COVID patients,” lamented Dr. Sergio Segarra, chief medical officer of Baptist Hospital Miami, where the Florida chain reported an increase of well over 140% in the past two weeks in the number of people now hospitalized with the virus. “As quickly as we can discharge them they’re coming in and they’re coming in very sick. We started seeing entire families come down.”
Biden had set a goal of reaching the 70% threshold by the Fourth of July. But that target was set well before the highly contagious delta variant enabled the virus to come storming back and undermined the assumptions that were used to arrive at that figure.
There was no celebration at the White House on Monday, nor a setting of a new target, as the administration instead struggles to overcome public resistance.
The 70% target marked the low-end of initial government estimates for what would be necessary to achieve herd immunity in the U.S. That has been rendered insufficient by the delta variant.
The U.S. still has not hit the administration’s other goal of fully vaccinating 165 million American adults by July 4. It is about 8.5 million short.
New cases per day in the U.S. have increased sixfold over the past month to an average of nearly 80,000, a level not seen since mid-February. And deaths per day have climbed over the past two weeks from an average of 259 to 360. Those are still well below the 3,400 deaths and a quarter-million cases per day seen during the worst of the outbreak, in January.
Some places around the country are seeing newly confirmed infections and hospital caseloads reach their highest levels since the pandemic began a year and a half ago. Nearly all deaths and serious illnesses now are in unvaccinated people.
The surge has led states and cities across the U.S. to beat a retreat, just weeks after it looked as if the country was going to see a close-to-normal summer.
Health officials in San Francisco and six other Bay Area counties announced Monday they are reinstating a requirement that everyone — vaccinated or not — wear masks in public indoor spaces.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New York City airport and transit workers will have to get vaccinated or face weekly testing. He stopped short of mandating either masks or inoculations for the general public, saying he lacks legal authority to do so.
Denver’s mayor said said the city will require police officers, firefighters and certain other municipal employees to get vaccinated, along with workers at schools, nursing homes, hospitals and jails.
Minnesota’s public colleges and universities will require masks while indoors on campus, regardless of vaccination status. And New Jersey said workers at state-run nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals and other such institutions must get the shot or face regular testing.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that a nationwide vaccination requirement “is not on the table,” but noted that employers have the right to take that step as they see fit.
In Florida, it took two months last summer for the number of people in the hospital with the coronavirus to jump from 2,000 to 10,000. It took only 27 days this summer for Florida hospitals to see that same increase, said Florida Hospital Association President Mary Mayhew.
She noted also that this time, 96% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated and are far younger, many of them in their 20s and 30s.
While setting a national vaccination goal may have been useful for trying to drum up enthusiasm for the shots, 70% of Americans getting one shot was never going to be enough to prevent surges among unvaccinated groups. And when he announced the goal, Biden acknowledged it was just a first step.
It’s the level of vaccinations in a community — not a broad national average — that can slow an outbreak or allow it to flourish. Vaccination rates from region to region differ wildly, and some places are far more vulnerable than others.
Vaccination rates in some Southern states are far lower than they are New England. Vermont has fully inoculated nearly 78% of its adult population. Alabama has just cracked 43%.
Associated Press writers Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Michelle Liu in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.