Plenty of the local news of late is trumpeting some version of "pandemic easing." We love hearing that, but there should be new caution in the wind. The Delta variant of COVID-19 — the highly contagious and more dangerous mutant virus that devastated India — has come to states near you: namely Georgia and North Carolina, and yes, Tennessee,.
The Delta variant, first seen in January in India and now overrunning Great Britain, has been detected in at least 6% of cases sequenced in the U.S. as of Wednesday.
That puts the U.S. at what Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Diseases and a White House COVID leader, calls "a tipping point." He says a Delta variant rate of 6% is the point where that strain took over in England, turning the long decline in British cases back into a upward turn. It now threatens to cause a delay in the end of the lockdown measures there.
"We cannot let that happen in the United States," Fauci said at a White House press briefing Tuesday.
But by Wednesday, the Delta variant had shown up in more than a dozen states in the U.S, including ours, according to a tracking map maintained by the company Helix, which works with the CDC and performs genetic sequencing on the virus variants. That mapping also shows the Delta variant in Florida, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Arizona and California.
The good news is that fully vaccinated people are somewhat protected.
Dr. David Kessler, the White House's Chief Science Officer on COVID-19, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which first reported the Delta variant being found in Georgia, that full inoculations — two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna or one shot of Johnson & Johnson vaccines — are some 80%-plus effective against this newer, more virulent virus strain. Having only one shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines drops that effectiveness rate to about 30%, Kessler said.
In Britain, almost all of the people who have been hospitalized with the Delta variant were not vaccinated. And while there have been some "breakthrough" cases where those who have been vaccinated catch the variant, they tend not to get as sick, health authorities told the AJC.
The most troubling news about the mutant virus coming to Tennessee and Georgia, however, is that we lag so far behind on vaccinations.
Last week, a New York Times analysis looking at state-by-state vaccinations determined that the nation as a whole is roughly on track to meet President Joe Biden's goal of getting at least one COVID-19 shot into the arms of 70% of adults by July 4 if — and it's a big if — the current vaccination pace holds.
But even if the country as a whole reaches the national target, at least 30 states probably will not. What's more, a handful — including Tennessee — are unlikely to reach the 70% mark before the end of the year, potentially prolonging the pandemic.
Georgia, with only 51.9% of adults having received one shot, is projected to hit the 70%, one-shot goal three months late.
Tennessee, with only 49% half-vaccinated, looks to get there six months late, and North Carolina will beat us by only one month.
Alabama and Mississippi will be more than year late.
Much of the South has lagged in other vaccination pushes, too — even flu. Public health experts pointed to persistent challenges here, including lower-than-average access to health care in rural areas, higher rates of vaccine hesitancy and even politics.
"You're also looking at states that relaxed mandates faster," said Dr. Jodie L. Guest, an epidemiologist at Emory University, told The Times. "Leadership matters. If you set the tone that this isn't serious, it's hard to convince people that it is."
Indeed. We want, want, want to see those "pandemic eases" headlines.
And it's great — we hope — to see that the recent Ironman event in Chattanooga drew an estimated 7,000 people to the riverfront, and that the Nightfall Concert Series has again cranked up downtown. Next week 16,000 Southern Baptists — a group more likely than most to be vaccine hesitant — are expected to gather in Nashville for their big annual meeting.
In the meantime, a new enemy virus seems poised to take hold, and we're not ready. Please get fully vaccinated. And please, elected leaders, get off your political high horses and make vaccinations a priority — better yet, required.