By: Clara Guthrie
In December of 2020, the beginning of the end of the pandemic was set into motion as the first COVID-19 vaccines were administered in the United States to frontline workers. Sandra Lindsay, an ICU nurse from the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, was the very first individual to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The momentous occasion was filmed and live streamed on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Twitter feed. At the time, Lindsay proudly stated, “I want to instill public confidence that the vaccine is safe. We’re in a pandemic and so we all need to do our part.”
Yet, in the six months following Lindsay’s statement of comfort and inspiration, it can be argued that the totality of the American people has not, in fact, done their part. According to data collected by the CDC, 45.1% of the total US population have been fully vaccinated, a number that only increases across age demographics: 77.2% of the population that is 65 years and older have been vaccinated. Additionally, 53.3% of the total population have received at least one dose of the vaccine. However, the rate of vaccination wildly varies when broken down state by state. According to CNN, states like Vermont and Connecticut have vaccination rates that exceed 80%. Meanwhile, other states—a majority of which are in the South—have vaccination rates below 35%.
According to Becker’s Hospital Review, Mississippi currently has the lowest vaccination rate in the country with only 28.86% of their population being fully vaccinated. The CDC reports that fewer than one million residents have received both doses of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines or one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, making them fully vaccinated. For reference, their total population is approximately three million people, based on data from the United States Census Bureau in 2019. Following Mississippi for the lowest vaccination rates are Alabama and Arkansas, with 31.86% and 33.3% of their respective populations being fully vaccinated. (As an interesting side note, these three states were also among the first to lift their mask mandates; Mississippi on March 2, Alabama on April 9 and Arkansas on March 30.)
These stark discrepancies in vaccination rates pose legitimate and pressing problems for states and counties that are struggling to vaccinate their citizens. Most concerning in these areas is the increased spread of more contagious strains of COVID-19, specifically the Delta variant. As the World Health Organization explains, the more a virus spreads, “the more opportunities it has to undergo changes.” These changes can directly alter both spreadability and severity of the virus. Earlier this year, the UK variant (or the Alpha variant) gained international attention because it was more transmissible than earlier COVID-19 strains. The Delta variant—which experts are now predicting will become the dominant strain in the United States—is even easier to spread between individuals. Moreover, the Delta variant is more unpredictable in how it affects individuals, in comparison to other strains. Steve Edwards, the CEO of CoxHealth, spoke on the variant and said, “We can’t tell why one patient is doing poorly and one is doing well. There’s just something different about how this variant is affecting the immune system of our patients.”
Due to this new Delta strain, doctors are doubling down on their insistence that citizens must get vaccinated to protect themselves and others. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said, “After two doses—reminding you, get your second dose—after two doses, you are protected from that Delta variant.” Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician who specializes in infectious diseases and vaccines, added, “Unless we vaccinate a significant percentage of the population before winter hits, you’re going to see more spread and the creation of more variants, which will only make this task [of ending the pandemic] more difficult.” These claims are backed by a recent study conducted by Public Health England that found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 96% effective against hospitalization caused by the Delta variant after two doses.
Therefore, in states like Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, there have been significant upsurges in cases of this new Delta variant, according to the aforementioned CNN article. Like what the country experienced when COVID-19 cases swelled during the winter months of late 2020 and early 2021, hospitals are again filling up in these lesser vaccinated states. According to the CDC, as of June 17, 2021, Mississippi was averaging 119 new cases of COVID-19 every seven days. Similarly, Alabama was averaging 190 new cases, and Arkansas was averaging 247 new cases every seven days. Meanwhile, Vermont was averaging only six new cases each week. It is important to note that, although slow and incomplete, some progress has been made in these southern states; Mississippi’s average weekly cases peaked in early January at around 2,324 new cases. But this progress is far from over and not yet something to celebrate.
Doctors and legislators now need to turn their attention towards pushing the vaccine into communities that are currently resistant to its presence or that are being faced with systemic barriers blocking them from receiving it. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the FDA, said, “Now we need to think about trying to push out the vaccine into community sites where people could get it delivered to them through a trusted intermediary, that’s going to mean doctors’ offices, schools, places of employment.”
This continued effort to vaccinate American citizens becomes increasingly important when one considers that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic minorities. America has continually fallen short of health equity, the concept that all citizens have equal opportunity for fair treatment and being healthy, and it has been brought to the forefront during the pandemic. Factors including discrimination, access to healthcare, employment as essential workers and housing conditions all pose challenges to achieving health equity. Thus, American Indian citizens and Alaska Natives represented 1,216.1 COVID-related hospitalizations per 100,000 people in America from March 1, 2020 to June 5, 2021. Black citizens represented 997.8 COVID-related hospitalizations, and Hispanic and Latinx citizens represented 993.5 hospitalizations. White Americans represented only 354.7 COVID-related hospitalizations across that same timespan.
Moreover, vaccination rates sorted by race also point towards immense health inequity. Only 1.0% of the American Indian and Alaska Native population, 9.1% of the Black population, and 15.1% of the Hispanic and Latinx population have received at least one dose of the vaccine. In stark contrast, 60.2% of the white population have received their first dose.
To stop the spread of the Delta variant, reduce the further mutation of the COVID-19 virus and protect the American population, vaccinations remain of the utmost importance, per the repeated recommendations of the CDC and other medical professionals.