The US is reporting some of the lowest Covid-19 metrics in nearly a year and officials say we’re finally turning the corner. But vaccination rates have slowed nationwide and are uneven across American communities.
For parts of the US, it will be an uphill battle to get more shots into arms. But experts say that challenge is critical – and officials need to deploy all kinds of strategies to help boost vaccinations.
It’s our best shot to overcome the pandemic.
“There’s a small percentage of people who just really, really don’t want (the vaccine). We’re going to have to work on that, but to me that’s a later issue,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told CNN on Wednesday. “There are a lot of people who have questions, so part of it is just helping address questions people have.”
For others, barriers in getting the vaccine are often not being able to afford to take time from work, he added, so it’s important to bring workplaces into the conversation of helping people get vaccinated.
“It’s really going to have to be an all-of-the-above strategy, of bringing vaccines to people,” Jha said. “It’s the ground game and it’s going to be a lot of work.”
More than 48% of the US population has received at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And roughly 38.1% of the population is fully vaccinated, the data shows.
And in 19 states, at least half of adults are fully vaccinated. Those are Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, as well as Washington, DC.
Timeline not clear on booster shots, Fauci says
Despite predictions that a coronavirus vaccine booster shot may be necessary within a year, the bottom line is that “We don’t know,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN on Thursday.
His comments echoed ones he made earlier in the day to The Washington Post during a live event, when Fauci said a rise in breakthrough infections may be the “trigger” for booster vaccinations, but it’s difficult to map out when that may happen.
“We’re preparing for the eventuality that we might need boosters, but I think we’ve got to be careful not to let the people know that inevitably, X number of months from now, everyone’s going to need a booster. That’s just not the case,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said. “We may not need it for quite a while.”
A breakthrough infection is a confirmed Covid-19 case 14 days or longer after a person is fully vaccinated.
Fauci’s comments Thursday appear to contrast those made during an Axios interview Wednesday, when he said a booster could be warranted within a year’s time. Scientists at companies that make Covid-19 vaccines have also predicted needing boosters within the same time frame – but the scientific community is not in widespread agreement on this.
“We’re making extrapolations” from incomplete data, Fauci explained to The Washington Post.
So far, studies have shown that mRNA vaccines – Pfizer and Moderna – maintain more than 90% efficacy after six months. And scientists say it’s likely much longer, but more data is needed.
Johnson & Johnson said it continues to investigate a potential booster.
“We have ongoing and planned trials that will aid our assessment of the need for, and timing of, booster doses of our vaccine,” officials said in an email to CNN.
What was behind the CDC guidance
Meanwhile, many Americans are still trying to navigate the latest guidance from the CDC, which said last week fully vaccinated Americans can – for the most part – ditch their masks.
The sudden change triggered policy changes across the country – with some local and state leaders as well as businesses dropping their mask mandates.
Experts worry that without verification systems in place, parts of the US will now have to rely on a kind of honor system on who’s choosing to mask up.
On Wednesday, supermarket chain Kroger announced fully vaccinated employees and customers will no longer need to wear masks in the company’s stores, distribution centers, plants, and offices.
The updated policy, which will adhere to state and local guidelines, says non-vaccinated associates will be required to wear a mask. And associates in pharmacy and clinic locations will be required to continue wearing a mask, a spokesperson said.
Speaking to CNN on Wednesday, Fauci said the CDC made the change in guidelines “purely to allow people who have been fully vaccinated to realize that the scientific data itself indicates that it is safe for them to go without a mask not only outdoors but also indoors.”
But instead, he said, many Americans interpreted the guidance to mean it was time for everyone to shed masks altogether, which is “obviously not the case,” he said.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky defended the guidance before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Wednesday.
“People have said that we moved too slow. People have said that we moved too fast. We moved at the speed that the science gave us,” she said.
That guidance, Walensky said, was aimed at individuals to better understand what the science on vaccines shows and help them make informed decisions based on the vaccination rates and transmission rates in their own communities. And the guidelines are just that: advice. It’s local officials who make the final call on mask mandates, Walensky said.
“If you have a county that has low vaccination rates and high rates of disease, that county may interpret our guidance differently than a county that has high vaccination rates and low incidence of disease,” she said. “So we really have to do this at the local level, because where there’s less vaccination, the virus will emerge.”
At least three states ban mask mandates in public schools
At least three states are banning, or taking steps to ban, mask mandates in public schools.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday issued an executive order prohibiting state governmental entities such as counties, school districts, and public health authorities from requiring mask-wearing, according to a news release from the governor’s office.
The executive order allows public schools to continue current mask-wearing guidelines through June 4; however, after June 4, no student, teacher, parent, or staff member can be required to wear a mask on school grounds, according to the order.
Local governmental entities attempting to impose a mask mandate can be subject to a fine of up to $1,000, the news release says.
Utah’s House passed a bill on Wednesday which will prohibit public schools and universities in the state from requiring masks after the end of this school year.
The bill also prohibits colleges and universities from requiring proof of a vaccination, unless medical and religious exemptions are allowed.
According to the bill, schools will be banned from “requiring a face covering to participate in or attend instruction, activities, or in any other place on the campus of the institution after the end of the spring semester in 2021.”
There is nothing in the bill that would prevent students or teachers from wearing a mask if they wished to do so.
And on Thursday, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill that prevents mask mandates in K-12 schools and stops cities and counties from mandating masks in businesses.
“The state of Iowa is putting parents back in control of their child’s education and taking greater steps to protect the rights of all Iowans to make their own health care decisions,” Reynolds said in a news release about the legislation.
Children need to keep wearing masks, experts say
More than a week after the Food and Drug Administration expanded the emergency use authorization for Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine to include people 12 to 15 years old, one expert says it’s been better than expected.
“As we’ve seen this new age category, from 12 to 15, it’s brought renewed hope,” Dr. Lisa Costello, a pediatrician at West Virginia University Medicine Children’s Hospital and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on State Government Affairs, told CNN.
“Many of the people who I know that work the various vaccine clinics, they’ve told me it felt like December when we were giving those first shots,” Costello added “People are so hopeful.”
The US has already vaccinated more than 600,000 12- to 15-year-olds, Walensky said Tuesday.
But since there is no vaccine approved for children under 12, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended Wednesday that children and adults who are not yet fully vaccinated still wear masks in certain settings.
Children should continue wearing masks in public places, particularly when social distancing isn’t possible, said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, chair of the AAP’s Committee on Infectious Diseases. Children can take off their masks when they are with family members from the same household or at small gatherings with fully vaccinated family members and friends.
Children can also take off their masks during water sports, like swimming, or activities that could pose a safety risk, like gymnastics, Maldonado said.
CNN’s Jen Christensen, Deidre McPhillips, Nathaniel Meyersohn, Virginia Langmaid, Michael Nedelman and Lauren Mascarenhas contributed to this report.