By CARLA K. JOHNSON
The contagious delta variant drives up COVID-19 hospitalizations in Mountain West and feeds on disruptive outbreaks in the north, a worrying sign of what may be ahead this winter in the United States
While trends are improving in Florida, Texas and other southern states that carried the worst of the summer wave, it is clear that the Delta is not done with the United States. COVID-19 moves north and west for the winter while people walk indoors, closing their windows and breathing stagnant air.
“We are going to see a lot of outbreaks in unvaccinated people that will result in serious illness and it will be tragic,” said Dr. Donald Milton of the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
In recent days, a University of Vermont has suspended social gatherings following an increase in cases related to Halloween parties. Officials in Boston closed an elementary school to control an outbreak. Hospitals in New Mexico and Colorado are overwhelmed.
In Michigan, the Detroit area of three counties is once again becoming a hot spot for transmissions, with a hospital system reporting nearly 400 COVID-19 patients. Mask wearing in Michigan has dropped to about 25% of the population, according to a combination of studies tracked by an influential model group at the University of Washington.
“Concerns about COVID in general are largely gone, which is unfortunate,” said Dr. Jennifer Morse, medical director of health departments in 20 counties in central and northern Michigan. “I feel weird walking into a store masked. I’m a minority. It’s very different. It’s just a really unusual atmosphere right now.”
New Mexico is running out of intensive care despite the state’s average vaccination rate. Declining immunity may play a role. People who were vaccinated early and have not yet received booster shots can drive up the infection rates, even though they still have some protection against the most serious consequences of the virus.
“Delta and declining immunity – the combination of these two has set us back,” said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics at the University of Washington. “This virus will stay with us for a long, long time.”
The Delta variant dominates infections throughout the United States and accounts for more than 99% of the samples analyzed.
No state has achieved a sufficiently high vaccination rate, even when combined with infection-induced immunity, to avoid the type of outbreak that is happening now, Mokdad said.
In a departure from national recommendations, Colorado Governor Jared Polis on Thursday signed a decree giving any resident 18 years of age or older access to a COVID-19 booster shot, another step to prevent hospitals and health care professionals from being overwhelmed by the state increase in delta infections.
Advances in vaccination continue, but nearly 60 million Americans 12 years of age and older remain unvaccinated. It’s an improvement since July, when 100 million were unvaccinated, said White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients.
The initial shots are averaging about 300,000 a day, and efforts to vaccinate children ages 5 to 11 have started strong, Zients said at a briefing Wednesday.
Virginia Tech’s Linsey Marr, a leading researcher in the airborne spread of coronavirus, predicted the northern spread of the virus in a Twitter post on September 15th. The virus spreads in the air and can build up in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation. Colder weather means more people are indoors and breathing the same air, Marr said.
Imagine that everyone you spend time with is a smoker and you want to inhale as little of their smoke as possible, she said.
“The closer you are to a smoker, the more exposure you are to that smoke,” Marr said. “And if you’re in a poorly ventilated room, the smoke builds up over time.”
Marr said she and her vaccinated family will use quick tests before gathering for Christmas to check for infection.
“It’s hard to know what’s coming next with this virus,” Marr said. “We thought we knew, but Delta really surprised us. We thought the vaccine would help end this, but things are still dragging on. It’s hard to know what’s going to happen now.”
Associated Press writers Ed White of Detroit and Corey Williams of West Bloomfield, Michigan, contributed to this report.
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