First detected in India and now present in at least 80 countries across the globe, the ultra-contagious Delta variant of Covid-19 is now running rampant through communities in the United States, with the most devastating impacts occurring in areas with low vaccination rates.
Missouri—where less than half of the population over the age of 18 has been fully inoculated—has emerged as the U.S. hot spot for the Delta strain, which officials say is fueling the alarming surge in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations that the state has experienced in recent weeks even as cases decline in the U.S. as a whole. Missouri currently has the highest rate of new Covid-19 infections in the country.
"It's nearly 100% of the people hospitalized with Covid pneumonia are unvaccinated."
—Dr. Robin Trotman, CoxHealth
"It's nearly 100% of the people hospitalized with Covid pneumonia are unvaccinated," said Dr. Robin Trotman, an infectious disease expert at CoxHealth, a six-hospital nonprofit healthcare system headquartered in Springfield. "Now we do have vaccinated people who test positive, but they don't get severely ill."
CNN reported Thursday that "more than half of those admitted to the two major hospitals in the Springfield area are from surrounding counties with limited health clinics."
"Those counties each have fully vaccinated rates below 20%," the outlet noted. "The national average is more than twice that figure, at 46%."
According to the Associated Press, the coronavirus surge in Missouri is "happening largely in a politically conservative farming region in the northern part of the state and in the southwestern corner, which includes Springfield and Branson, the country music mecca in the Ozark Mountains where big crowds are gathering again at the city's theaters and other attractions."
"While over 53% of all Americans have received at least one shot... most southern and northern Missouri counties are well short of 40%," AP observed. "One county is at just 13%."
Erik Frederick, chief administrative officer at Mercy Hospital Springfield, told AP that 60% to 65% of patients in the ICU at his facility last weekend were under the age of 40, a segment of the population that is less likely to be vaccinated.
In recent days, local public health officials and federal experts have been sounding the alarm about the threat posed by the Delta strain in the hope that residents of other states will learn from the public health disaster that's unfolding in Missouri.
"If people elsewhere in the country are looking to us and saying, 'No thanks' and they are getting vaccinated, that is good," said Frederick. "We will be the canary."
During a press briefing earlier this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci—head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—called the Delta variant "the greatest threat in the U.S. to our attempt to eliminate Covid-19."
"Good news: Our vaccines are effective against the Delta variant," Fauci added. "Conclusion: We have the tools, so let's use them and crush the outbreak."
Though Missouri has seen the most acute consequences of the Delta variant thus far, the mutation is also spreading in Utah, New York, Nevada, Arkansas, and other states, raising concerns of an imminent nationwide spike in cases that could be followed by increased hospitalizations and deaths, particularly among the unvaccinated.
"The U.K. experience suggests U.S. vaccination level will not be enough to ward off a Delta spike. The spike won't be uniform across the nation. Indeed, low-vax communities are particularly at risk."
—Ashish Jha, Brown University
An AP analysis out Thursday found that "nearly all Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. now are in people who weren't vaccinated, a staggering demonstration of how effective the shots have been and an indication that deaths per day—now down to under 300—could be practically zero if everyone eligible got the vaccine."
But the U.S. vaccination drive has slowed in recent weeks, and the Biden White House conceded Tuesday that it will miss its goal of getting 70% of the nation's adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4.
"Just 38.3% of those ages 18 to 29 have been vaccinated," the Post noted. "Across all age groups, people living in counties with high rates of poor and uninsured people and less access to computers and the Internet were less likely to be vaccinated... In general, rural and Republican areas have embraced vaccination less than cities and Democratic states in the Northeast and along the West Coast."
The Delta variant currently accounts for more than a third of all new coronavirus cases in the U.S.; in India and the United Kingdom, the strain is behind more than 90% of new infections. Officials in Israel and Sydney, Australia are also rushing to contain Delta outbreaks.
"After observing the startlingly swift rise of the Delta variant in the United Kingdom, other countries are bracing for the variant's impact—if they aren't feeling it already," Nature's Ewen Callaway reported earlier this week. "Nations with ample access to vaccines, such as those in Europe and North America, are hopeful that the shots can dampen the inevitable rise of Delta. But in countries without large vaccine stocks, particularly in Africa, some scientists worry that the variant could be devastating.
Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, warned in a series of tweets on Thursday that the U.S. could soon see an infection surge similar to the one hitting the U.K., which has vaccinated a larger percentage of its population.
"The U.K. experience suggests U.S. vaccination level will not be enough to ward off a Delta spike," Jha wrote. "The spike won't be uniform across the nation. Indeed, low-vax communities are particularly at risk."