The United States reached two promising pandemic milestones on Monday: COVID-19 deaths dropped below 300 a day and 150 million Americans are now fully vaccinated.
COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in America in 2020, behind only heart disease and cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But as the pandemic loosens its grip on this country, it has fallen down the list of the biggest killers, the Associated Press reported.
CDC data suggests that more Americans are now dying every day from accidents, chronic lower respiratory diseases, strokes or Alzheimer's disease than from COVID-19, the wire service said.
The statistics should get even better as vaccination rates continue to rise: About 45% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, while over 53% of Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine. But U.S. demand for shots has slumped in recent weeks.
Dr. Ana Diez Roux, dean of Drexel University's School of Public Health in Philadelphia, told the AP that the dropping rates of infections and deaths should be celebrated. But she cautioned that the virus can still spread and mutate, given the low vaccination rates in some states, including Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Wyoming and Idaho.
"So far, it looks like the vaccines we have are effective against the variants that are circulating," Diez Roux told the AP. "But the more time the virus is jumping from person to person, the more time there is for variants to develop, and some of those could be more dangerous."
Still, many states are doing well: In New York, which was crippled by the coronavirus in the spring of 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted on Monday that the state had 10 new deaths. At the peak of the outbreak in New York, nearly 800 people a day were dying from the coronavirus, the AP said.
On the flip side, Missouri leads the nation in per-capita COVID-19 cases and is fourth behind California, Florida and Texas in the number of new cases per day over the past week despite its significantly smaller population, the AP reported. COVID-19 hospitalizations in southwest Missouri have risen 72% since the beginning of the month.
The fall will likely bring new waves of infection, but they will be concentrated in places with low vaccination rates, Amber D'Souza, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, told the AP.
Meanwhile, because of regulatory hurdles and other factors, the United States is expected to fall short of its commitment to share 80 million vaccine doses with the rest of the world by the end of June, White House officials said Monday.
Only 10 million doses have actually been shipped out, including 2.5 million doses delivered to Taiwan over the weekend, and about 1 million doses delivered to Mexico, Canada and South Korea earlier this month, the Washington Post reported.
"What we've found to be the biggest challenge is not actually the supply -- we have plenty of doses to share with the world -- but this is a Herculean logistical challenge," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a media briefing Monday.
Earlier this month, Biden announced that on top of the 80 million, the United States was purchasing 500 million doses from Pfizer to donate globally over the coming year, with the first deliveries expected in August.
Lower vaccination rates among seniors could drive new cases
U.S. health experts warn there is a ticking time bomb in 11 states where 20 percent or more of seniors still haven't gotten a COVID-19 vaccine.
Top priority for vaccinations was given to Americans aged 65 and older because they are far more vulnerable to serious illness and death from the virus than younger people are. Accordingly, this age group does have the highest rate of vaccination: 87 percent have received at least one dose, compared with 60 percent for people aged 18 to 64, and 31 percent for those aged 12 to 17, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.
But in the 11 states where vaccination rates are lower among seniors, those who haven't gotten a shot pose a public health risk as social distancing restrictions are stripped away.
Most of the 11 states are in the South: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee, The New York Times reported. Georgia, Idaho and Missouri are at the 20 percent threshold. West Virginia and Wyoming have more than 20 percent of people 65 and over without one dose.
"The 20 percent lines up pretty well with a group of people, especially in the South, who say, 'No way, no how am I getting vaccinated,'" Dr. Michael Saag, associate dean for global health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told the Times.
"Convincing them that it is in their own interest is a tough nut to crack," Saag noted. "For the state of Alabama and other Southern states, this is not for a lack of effort or resources. This is about a population resistant to receiving the message."
Older people have felt more threatened from the coronavirus, experts say, so they have been among the most receptive to the vaccines. After older age groups were given priority when the first vaccines were authorized for emergency use in December, the proportion of those dying started dropping immediately, the Times reported.
Now, those aged 50 and older account for the bulk of COVID-19 deaths and the virus continues to kill hundreds of people daily. Death rates remain high in pockets of the nation where vaccination rates are low, the Times reported, and experts are concerned that these regions could face a surge in coronavirus cases over the summer.
"All epidemics are local at the end of the day, and transmission is person-to-person," Saag told the Times. "There is going to be a hot pocket of transmission if someone becomes infected and others around them are unvaccinated. This is not Epidemiology 101, this is common sense."
Last year, a summer surge lasted until September in the South. This year, many people are vaccinated and there is also residual immunity from those who have already had COVID-19, Saag said.
But the dropping of mask ordinances comes as the highly infectious Delta variant spreads, he noted. U.S. health officials this week classified the variant, first spotted in India, as a "variant of concern," sounding the alarm because it spreads rapidly and may cause more serious illness in unvaccinated people.
"We're sitting on a powder keg," Saag said.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found last month that 10 percent of unvaccinated seniors said that they would "definitely not" get inoculated against the coronavirus. But the same poll showed signs that some hesitant people have been persuaded: About a third who had planned to "wait-and-see" on vaccination now say they are planning to get shots, the Times reported.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on COVID-19 vaccinations.
SOURCE: Associated Press; Washington Post; The New York Times