U.S. States With High COVID Cases Seeing Vaccination Rate Increase: White House

U.S. states that have reported the highest number of delta variant cases are also seeing an increase in COVID-19 vaccination rates, the White House said.

Jeff Zients, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator, said several states that are reporting the highest number of new infections are also seeing vaccination rates higher than the nation's average. Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri and Nevada were the states officials said have seen the increase.

The highly contagious delta variant is responsible for an estimated 83 percent of COVID-19 cases across the United States.

Health officials have warned that the country is in a critical moment as it attempts to handle the pandemic as the delta variant spreads, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not changed guidelines that say masks are not required for those who are fully vaccinated.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

COVID vaccine California
States with the highest number of COVID cases are also seeing the largest jump in vaccination rates, the White House said. Above, Jacob Alexander, 14, receives her Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine from vocational nurse Eon Walker at a mobile vaccine clinic hosted by Mothers in Action and operated by the Los Angeles County of Public Health on July 16, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

White House officials said hospitals are running out of space because of the delta variant, which is "spreading with incredible efficiency."

"The fourth surge is real, and the numbers are quite frightening at the moment," Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said on a New Orleans radio show. Edwards, a Democrat, added: "There's no doubt that we are going in the wrong direction, and we're going there in a hurry."

Louisiana reported 2,843 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, a day after reporting 5,388 — the third-highest level since the pandemic began. Hospitalizations are up steeply in the last month, from 242 on June 19 to 913 in the latest report. Fifteen new deaths were reported Thursday.

Just 36 percent of Louisiana's population is fully vaccinated, state health department data shows. Nationally, 56.3 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Aly Neel, a spokesperson for Louisiana's health department, said the state has seen "a little bump" in vaccinations recently, adding that details would be available Friday. Warner Thomas, president and CEO of Ochsner Health, said the system had seen a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in people seeking vaccination over the past week or two.

In Missouri, which is second only to Arkansas and Louisiana in the number of new cases per capita over the past 14 days, officials have rolled out a vaccine incentive program that includes $10,000 prizes for 900 lottery winners. The state lags about 10 percentage points behind the national average for people who have received at least one shot.

Hospitals in the Springfield area are under strain, reaching pandemic high and near pandemic high numbers of patients.

"Younger, relatively healthy and unvaccinated. If this describes you, please consider vaccination," tweeted Erik Frederick, chief administrative officer of Mercy Hospital Springfield, noting that half of the COVID-19 patients are ages 21 to 59 and just 2 percent of that group is vaccinated.

The surge that began in the southwest part of the state, where some counties have vaccination rates in the teens, has started to spread to the Kansas City area, including at Research Medical Center.

"I don't want to keep putting my life on the line just because people don't want to get vaccinated or listen to what health care professionals are recommending," lamented Pascaline Muhindura, a registered nurse who has worked on the hospital's COVID-19 unit for more than a year.

"A lot of them don't even believe in COVID-19 to begin with. It is incredibly frustrating. You are helping someone that doesn't even believe that the illness that they have is real," Muhindura said.

Dr. Jason Wilson, an emergency physician with Tampa General Hospital, also has watched the rise in cases with frustration. Unlike earlier in the pandemic, when many patients were in their 70s, he has seen the median patient age fall to the mid-40s.

"I spent a lot of time this fall and last summer saying, 'We've got to do these things, these social mitigation strategies until we get that vaccine. Just hang in there," Wilson said.

Hospitals initially were hopeful as cases declined. But then, he said, "Things just fell flat."

In conservative Utah, hospitals also are filling up again as the virus surges among the unvaccinated. On Wednesday, the state recorded its highest number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 in five months.

State health officials renewed their pleas for residents to get vaccinated as Utah intensive care units reached 81.5 percent capacity. There are 295 people who are hospitalized due to the virus in the state, the highest since February.

"This delta at the moment it is honing in on largely unvaccinated persons," said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases in the health policy department at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.

The delta variant is the predominant strain in every region of the country and continues "spreading with incredible efficiency," the director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, told reporters at the White House.

She said the mutation is more aggressive and much more transmissible, calling it "one of the most infectious respiratory viruses we know of."

"We are yet at another pivotal moment in this pandemic," she warned. "We need to come together as one nation."

In Georgia, Atlanta Public Schools announced Thursday that it will implement a "universal mask wearing" policy in all of the system's school buildings when fall classes begin.

Just 18 percent of eligible students in the Atlanta school system are fully vaccinated and 58 percent of its employees have said they are either fully vaccinated or plan to be, officials said.

"Given our low vaccination rates and increasing community spread, the CDC acknowledges that universal masking would be appropriate," the school system said in the statement.

CDC Director listens at hearing
Despite an increase in COVID-19 cases across the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not changed its recommendation for fully vaccinated individuals to not need masks. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the CDC, left, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listen during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing, Tuesday, July 20, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times via AP, Pool