Daily Covid-19 cases in the US moved above 100,000 a day for the first time since February, higher than the levels of last summer when vaccines were not available, and came as health officials sounded alarm over lagging rates of vaccination driving the surge of the infectious Delta variant.
The seven-day average of hospital admissions has also increased more than 40% from the week before, with health workers describing frustration and exhaustion as hospitals in Covid hotspots were again overwhelmed with patients, almost 20 months into the pandemic in the US.
“As we look at our hospitalizations and as we look at our deaths, they are overwhelmingly unvaccinated people,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky said at a briefing on Thursday.
About half of all new infections and hospitalizations in the past week were in seven southern states – Florida, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi – even though the states represent less than a quarter of the country’s population, said White House coronavirus coordinator, Jeff Zients.
In Mississippi on Thursday, there were 3,164 new confirmed cases, the second highest single-day caseload in the state during the pandemic.
“We’re seeing a phenomenal increase in daily reported cases of Covid, and this is entirely attributable to the Delta variant, which is sweeping over Mississippi like a tsunami,” said state health officer Thomas Dobbs.
The entire state had just eight ICU beds available on Thursday, officials said, and more than 1,147 people were hospitalized with Covid-19.
Nichole Atherton, an intensive care nurse in Mississippi, told Reuters she was planning to resign from her hospital and find nursing work elsewhere because she couldn’t stand watching Covid’s toll on her community.
“The first wave was heartbreaking, because there was nothing people could do except stay away from the people they love,” Atherton said about infections last year before vaccines were developed. “This time, there are options.”
Three people have messaged her to say they will get vaccinated, Atherton said.
At a White House coronavirus briefing on Thursday, officials said as cases surge, efforts were focused on communities with low vaccination rates, which are driving the pandemic.
“Across the board, we are seeing increases in cases and hospitalizations in all age groups,” said Walensky.
Walensky said the CDC had reported more than 103,400 new cases of Covid on Wednesday, and that the seven-day average for cases was about 89,463 per day.
One bright spot is vaccination rates are now increasing again across the US. White House data director Cyrus Shahpar said that on Wednesday there were more vaccinations in a single day than since 3 July, with 864,000 new doses reported administered. Of those, 585,000 were first shots.
Of the three vaccines approved for emergency use in the US, Johnson & Johnson only requires one shot, Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines need two shots several weeks apart, and all three give strong protection.
Some of the same states responsible for the increase in cases are also picking up the vaccination pace. The White House said Tennessee has seen a 90% increase in first shots over the past two weeks. Oklahoma saw an 82% increase and Georgia saw a 66% percent increase.
“The unvaccinated continue to be the big highway of transmission,” William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center told CNN. “So the unvaccinated continue to be the big highway of transmission. The vaccinated, they’re little side streets. Let’s not get preoccupied with that. We need to get more people vaccinated.”
A growing number of companies are requiring employees get the Covid-19 vaccine. United on Friday became the first major US airline to require all employees get vaccinated.
And defense secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to soon order vaccines mandatory for the military. More than a million service members are fully vaccinated of the roughly two million active-duty, guard and reserve troops, according to the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, hospitals are fighting to get financial help from state and federal officials. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) provides funding to help cover some Covid-related costs at hospitals.
But state officials in Texas are denying funding requests from hospitals as cases surge across the state, after providing $5.39bn earlier in the pandemic, which was reimbursed by Fema, according to local news channel WFAA.