The US could soon see more than 200,000 new cases of Covid-19 every day as the Delta variant spreads at a rapid pace, particularly among unvaccinated people, the director of the National Institutes of Health predicted.
“I will be surprised if we don’t cross 200,000 cases a day in the next couple of weeks, and that’s heartbreaking considering we never thought we would be back in that space again,” Dr. Francis Collins said on Fox News Sunday.
“That was January, February, that shouldn’t be August. But here we are with the Delta variant, which is so contagious, and this heartbreaking situation where 90 million people are still unvaccinated, who are sitting ducks for this virus, and that’s the mess we’re in.”
That mark is still a ways off. As of Saturday, the US has averaged about 129,000 daily new cases over the last 7 days, a number that has risen every day since July 5, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The country last averaged over 200,000 cases per day in January, before the Covid-19 vaccines were widely available.
Then as now, the alarming uptick has stretched health resources thin as many hospitals struggle to meet the demand of those who need crucial medical care.
“The system is breaking,” CNN medical analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner told CNN’s Jim Acosta on Saturday.
“It’s not just the beds. Many hospitals can find beds in places like parking structures or cafeterias. But it’s qualified people to staff those beds. And the United States is critically short on ICU nurses, so finding the qualified staff to take care of critically ill patients becomes increasingly hard,” said Reiner, a professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University.
Because older people have much higher vaccination rates – over 90% of people 65 and older have had at least one shot – this surge has particularly hit younger populations.
The rate of new hospitalizations among people in their 30s increased by nearly 300% over the past month, according to an analysis of data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New Covid-19 hospital admissions among people in their 30s are now the highest since the pandemic began, according to the data.
Health experts say the solution is to vaccinate as many people as possible, because the vaccines provide good protection against severe disease. As of Sunday, 50.7% of the US population was fully vaccinated. That’s 59.3% of those eligible to receive a vaccination, CDC data shows.
“We are going to have to continue to get people vaccinated so that right now, even in states in which you have a good relative proportion of people vaccinated, you have to get the overwhelming proportion of people vaccinating,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
Extra vaccine shot for the immune-compromised, and possibly others
More vaccine shots will also be available for some already-vaccinated people.
The US Food and Drug Administration on Thursday authorized an additional vaccine dose to be administered to people with compromised immune systems, who may not have an adequate immune response to the vaccine.
Vaccine advisers to the CDC voted unanimously to recommend the additional dose for some immunocompromised people on Friday. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky quickly endorsed the vote, which means people can get these third doses right away.
Booster shots may also be made available for others soon, such as elderly people, those in nursing homes or even the general population. Some officials are concerned that the Delta variant may be able to evade some of the vaccine’s protection.
“There is a concern that the vaccine may start to wane in its effectiveness over months, and Delta is a nasty one for us to try to deal with,” Collins said. “The combination of those two means we may need boosters, maybe beginning first with health care providers, as well as people in nursing homes and then gradually moving forward.”
Fauci said the vaccines still provide strong protection, but officials are studying the issue to determine if such boosters are needed.
“So if it turns out, as the data come in, we see we do need to give an additional dose to people in nursing homes, actually, or people who are elderly, we will be absolutely prepared to do that very quickly,” Fauci said.
How you wear your mask matters, experts say
As mask mandates in schools become a contentious topic in districts across the South, experts want Americans to know the safest way students should mask up.
CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen said returning to schools safely is possible.
“Quality of masks really matters,” she told CNN’s Pamela Brown Saturday. “Don’t send your child to school with a cloth face covering. Use as least a three-ply surgical mask and, ideally, an N95 or KN95 if your child is old enough and can tolerate it.”
Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, echoed that sentiment.
“Mask with the most highly efficient and effective means you have. These are the N95 masks,” he told CNN.
He added that while the US had a supply shortage of those masks during the pandemic’s onset, there’s now an abundance of them.
“Use them. And when you use them, please don’t wear them under your nose … That’s nothing more than a chin diaper. And it doesn’t provide you any protection,” he said.
Osterholm said Covid-19 is largely transmitted by aerosols, which are tiny particles in the air. He explained that if you can smell the smoke of a cigarette from 20 feet way while masked, then you need a higher quality mask for optimal safety.
CNN’s Jacqueline Howard, Lauren Mascarenhas and Naomi Thomas contributed to this report.