The United States finally met President Joe Biden’s goal on Monday of getting at least one shot of COVID-19 on 70% of American adults – a month later and amid a surge in the delta variant that floods hospitals and leads to new mask rules and mandatory vaccinations across the country.
In a major retreat in the Deep South, Louisiana ordered almost everyone, vaccinated or not, to wear masks again in all indoor public places, including schools and colleges. And other cities and states have also decided to reinstate precautions to counter a crisis blamed on the rapidly spreading variant and stubborn resistance to getting the vaccine.
“As soon as we can unload them, they come in and they come in very sick. We started to see whole families coming down, ”lamented Dr. Sergio Segarra, chief medical officer at Baptist Hospital Miami. The Florida chain of medical centers reported a more than 140% increase in the past two weeks in the number of people now hospitalized with the virus.
Biden had set a 70% vaccination goal by July 4. That number was the low of initial government estimates of what would be needed to gain herd immunity in the United States, but it was made insufficient by the highly contagious delta variant, which allowed the virus to storm back.
There was no celebration at the White House on Monday, or setting a new target, as the administration instead struggles to overcome skepticism and outright hostility to the vaccine, especially in the South and in other rural and conservative areas.
The United States has yet to meet the administration’s other goal of fully immunizing 165 million American adults by July 4. About 8.5 million are missing.
New cases per day in the United States have increased six-fold over the past month to an average of nearly 80,000, a level not seen since mid-February. And deaths per day have soared over the past two weeks, from an average of 259 to 360.
These are still well below the 3,400 deaths and a quarter of a million cases per day observed at the height of the epidemic, in January. But some places across the country are seeing the number of cases reach their highest level since the start of the pandemic. And almost all deaths and serious illnesses now involve unvaccinated people.
The push led states and cities across the United States to retreat, just weeks after it looked like the country was going to have a near-normal summer.
Health officials in San Francisco and six other Bay Area counties said on Monday they were reinstating a requirement that everyone, vaccinated or not, wear masks in indoor public spaces.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says New York airport and transit workers will need to be vaccinated or face weekly tests. He stopped before imposing masks or vaccines on the general public, saying he did not have the legal authority to do so.
The mayor of Denver said the city will require police, firefighters and some other city workers to get vaccinated, as well as workers in schools, nursing homes, hospitals and prisons.
Public colleges and universities in Minnesota will require masks indoors, regardless of immunization status. New Jersey said workers in state-run nursing homes, mental hospitals and other such institutions should get vaccinated or have regular tests.
The governor of North Carolina has ordered state employees at agencies under his control to cover up indoors if they are not fully immunized.
And McDonald’s has said it will require employees and customers to resume wearing masks inside some American restaurants, regardless of vaccination status in areas with high or substantial coronavirus transmission. The company did not say how many restaurants would be affected by the new mask mandate.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a nationwide vaccination requirement “is not on the table,” but noted that employers have the right to take such a step .
The US Senate saw its first breakthrough case of the virus leaked, with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina saying he was showing mild symptoms.
In Florida, it took two months last summer for the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 to rise from 2,000 to 10,000. Florida hospitals only took 27 days this summer to see the same increase. said Mary Mayhew, president of the Florida Hospital Association.
She also noted that this time, 96% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are not vaccinated and are much younger, many of them in their 20s and 30s.
Amid the wave, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis doubled down on his anti-mask and anti-lockdown stance, warning in a fundraising email this weekend: “They’re coming back for your freedom. “
While setting a national immunization goal may have been helpful in trying to build enthusiasm for vaccines, 70% of Americans who get a vaccine were never going to be enough to prevent flare-ups among unvaccinated groups. And when he announced the goal, Biden admitted it was just the first step.
It is the level of immunization in a community – not a broad national average – that can slow an epidemic or allow it to thrive.
Vaccination rates in some southern states are much lower than in New England. Vermont has completely inoculated nearly 78% of its adult population. Alabama has just cracked 43%.
Associated Press editors Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Michelle Liu in Columbia, South Carolina, and Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.