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97% Of People Entering Hospitals For COVID-19 Are Unvaccinated

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Formidable is how Dr. Anthony Fauci described the delta variant of COVID-19 during a White House briefing today. That variant continues to spread across the globe, and cases of coronavirus are on the rise in the U.S., particularly in regions that have low vaccination rates. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to discuss. Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there - good to be here.

KELLY: What are the latest numbers, and what do they tell us?

AUBREY: Well, the seven-day average of new cases has risen by 69%. The seven-day hospitalization average has risen by about 36%. This may sound dramatic, Mary Louise, but to put it in perspective, there are now about 26,000 new cases per day in the U.S. That's far, far fewer cases than the 200,000 or so cases we saw back in the winter. But, you know, after steady declines, these new increases are concerning to officials. And they're really concentrated, as you just said, in areas with low vaccination rates. At a White House briefing today, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky spoke about the stark divide between the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated. We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage because unvaccinated people are at risk.

AUBREY: So officials again urged people to get vaccinated.

KELLY: And is it these two factors you were just talking about - unvaccinated people and the delta variant? These are the two factors driving this case increase right now.

AUBREY: Yes, absolutely. The delta variant is estimated to be up to 225% more transmissible than the original strain. So, you know, once it finds pockets of unprotected people, it can spread very quickly. Over just the last week, 10% of U.S. counties moved into what the CDC categorizes as high transmission risk. All of these counties have low vaccination rates. Now, there are breakthrough cases where fully vaccinated people are getting infected. But typically, Mary Louise, they're not ending up in the hospital. In fact, 97% of people who are hospitalized from COVID now are unvaccinated. Here's Dr. Walensky again.

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WALENSKY: The good news is that if you're fully vaccinated, you are protected against severe COVID hospitalization and death and are even protected against the known variants, including the delta variant.

AUBREY: So as it has been said so many times, if you're not vaccinated, you remain at risk.

KELLY: So where are we, Allison, on masking, social distancing, indoor events? Are health officials recommending a return to any of those restrictions?

AUBREY: Well, some are. In Los Angeles County, they will reimpose the indoor mask mandate due to a rise in cases there. The county will require masking for everyone while indoors in public settings and in businesses regardless of vaccination status. And today Dr. Walensky suggested that other local leaders might choose to follow suit or change their guidelines. Here she is again.

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WALENSKY: If you have areas of low vaccination and high case rates, then I would say local policymakers might consider whether masking at that point would be something that would be helpful for their community until they scale up their vaccination rates.

AUBREY: Now, it is very unlikely that there'd be any kind of national mandate. But a lot of public health officials and infectious disease experts tell me, hey; you know, it's a prudent thing to do to mask up in crowded public places, especially if you have people in your household who are, say, immunocompromised or children who can't yet be vaccinated.

KELLY: And I want to ask real quick about some news. Pfizer is saying the FDA has given their vaccine priority review status to consider full approval. What's the significance there?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, currently, the vaccine has the emergency use authorization. And if the FDA grants full approval, it could make it easier for companies, for schools and universities, for the military to require people to be vaccinated in some settings. The FDA deadline is January, but agency officials say a decision is on track to happen far sooner than that. And once fully approved, the company could market the vaccine directly to consumers.

KELLY: Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.