With the 7-day average of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. currently at 350 and rising, public health experts are arguing that recent deaths were largely avoidable due to widespread availability of effective vaccines.
“For me as a physician, this is a national tragedy,” University of Alabama at Birmingham Associate Dean for Global Health Dr. Michael Saag said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “These deaths are largely preventable, and from a public health perspective, that’s inexcusable that we can be in this country and be experiencing this kind of problem.”
Delta variant is 'more transmissible and it can break through the vaccine'
Though vaccination numbers in the country have improved as of late, the overall rollout has still been impeded by vaccine hesitancy.
About 99.2% of COVID-related deaths since the beginning of 2021 have been among unvaccinated individuals, and the Delta variant is particularly contagious.
“I can boil it down this way: Delta is different,” Saag said. “We knew COVID from back last year … What's different about Delta is that it’s more transmissible and it can break through the vaccine where the other variants didn’t do that very much.”
The Delta variant, which previously ravaged India and the U.K., now accounts for an estimated 83% of new U.S. coronavirus cases in recent weeks.
Furthermore, according to the CDC, those who are fully vaccinated can transmit the Delta variant to others despite all three vaccines being very effective in preventing cases of serious illness and death.
“It’s a whole new ballgame again and all of us — doctors, patients, people in public," Saag said, "we’re getting whiplash from all these rapid changes of information."
'Anyone who’s unvaccinated, for goodness sake: wear a mask'
In Alabama, where Saag is based out of, cases have increased by +149% over the past two weeks, while hospitalizations have surged 170% over that same time period.
“The spike in Alabama is going to look by about Labor Day [to be] two to three times higher in terms of numbers of cases a day than we’ve ever seen in the entire pandemic,” Saag said. “Two to three times higher than our worst month which was January of this year. And so what it means for those of us on the ground, we’re going to have to buckle down and re-orient our hospital to handle the surge in cases, the spike. The difference this go-around is that the patients coming into the hospital are almost exclusively unvaccinated people.”
The contagiousness of Delta variant is especially dangerous for vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the immunocompromised, and the children who are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine.
“Anyone who’s unvaccinated, for goodness sake: wear a mask,” Saag said. “Stay away from large crowds. You are at high risk of not just getting COVID but if you got it, you’re going to end up in the hospital potentially and maybe going on a ventilator. I’m not trying to be freaking anybody out but that’s what we’re seeing. You don’t know in advance how your body’s going to deal with COVID. Why give it a chance?”
Saag acknowledged the chances of a breakthrough infection but compared it to getting the flu vaccine, in which most people who still got the flu after being vaccinated typically didn’t need to be hospitalized.
“That’s where we are with COVID,” he said. “So job one for all of us is to get everybody vaccinated right now. Even though it might not be beneficial in the immediate next 3 to 4 weeks, it’ll be hugely important for October to get us out of this.”
'What the public can do is get vaccinated'
The situation has gotten so dire that more and more government officials have turned to offering financial incentives to get people vaccinated.
President Biden recently called on state, territorial, and local governments to provide $100 payments to incentivize Americans to receive a coronavirus vaccine. Other places like Maryland and New York are doing similar things on a local level.
In the meantime, the influx of hospitalizations could also spell trouble for health care workers who had similar experiences during the peaks of 2020 and early 2021. (Generally, rises in COVID-19 hospitalizations and followed by rises in COVID-19 deaths.)
"Health care workers are exhausted, worn out, frustrated, angry that people aren’t getting vaccinated," Saad said. "And those are precisely the people who are showing up in our ERs and being admitted to the hospital, being transferred to the ICUs, and here we go again dealing with death. And we don’t like it.”
Despite the burdens once again placed on hospitals, Saag stressed that “health care workers are professional. They’ll rise up. They’ll do the job. But it’s very demoralizing, and we’ve just got to support one another. And above all, what the public can do is get vaccinated, and if you’ve been vaccinated, please encourage those around you. You can make a difference simply by having a positive message and getting your friends and relatives vaccinated even if they’re hesitant.”
About 58.2% of the U.S. population ages 12 and up are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data, and about 67.7% have received at least one dose.
“Once we get through this spike, I think as more people get vaccinated, that will be our exit strategy,” Saag said. “That’s how we get out of this. As Jim Morrison would say: 'The time to hesitate is through, no time to wallow in the mire.’ Go get vaccinated.”
Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at [email protected]
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