Vaccine ‘obstinance’ is fueling Delta variant’s spread across America

Melissa Healy

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — The Delta variant crept into Americans’ consciousness through a distant haze of funeral pyres. But now that the coronavirus strain first detected in India has burst upon communities across the United States, it has taken on a distinctly American look and feel.

In Giddings, Texas, it’s 147 infections that roared through attendees of a church ministry camp.

In Clark County, Nevada, it’s a wave of close to 7,000 cases that sidelined three barbers at a Fade ‘Em All shop in Las Vegas over the July 4 weekend even as a sister shop hosted a COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

In Grand Junction, Colorado, it’s the invisible force behind outbreaks at a country music festival, church services, and a carnival in a mall parking lot. The Delta variant claimed the life of a 15-year-old girl in May and has maxed out capacity at the county’s two hospitals.

Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that Delta represents 58% of all new cases in the United States. In some places, particularly in the Midwest and upper mountain states, it has almost completely overtaken other coronavirus strains in just two months.

That’s quite a feat for a virus that arrived here around mid-March. Armed with some key mutations in the spike protein it uses to latch on to cells, the Delta variant was found to be 50% more transmissible than the Alpha variant first detected in the United Kingdom — a strain that already passed from person to person 56% more readily than the original virus that sparked the pandemic.

Early research suggested it might drive up hospitalizations, though the CDC has not found evidence to back this up. Still, Dr. Mike Ryan, who leads the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program, called it “faster” and “fitter” than any strain that has come before it, and it’s now fueling outbreaks and deaths in at least 111 countries.

The Delta variant has surged with terrifying speed and strength in Greene County, Missouri, since it was first detected there in May.

Before Delta, COVID-19 hospitalizations hovered at 34. On June 21, 155 patients were in the county’s hospitals — a number not seen since the nationwide surge of COVID-19 cases in January. By July 8, the census rose to 192, with 70 in the critical care unit.

Greene County reported 19 COVID-19 deaths in June, virtually all caused by the Delta variant. Deaths are expected to double or triple in July.

“We are just being inundated with COVID cases,” said Kendra Findley, the county’s administrator of community health and epidemiology. All of them are caused by the Delta variant, she added.

The places being overrun by Delta share something uniquely American: Despite overflowing supply of vaccines and strong evidence that they protect against the new variant, large numbers of residents have declined to inoculate themselves or their adolescent children.

Indeed, 93% of the U.S. counties with the highest rates of new infections have vaccination rates below 40%, according to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. Many of these counties are strongholds of the Delta variant, she added.

Low vaccination rates, a high rate of community transmission and the reopening of public spaces with scant protective measures “will certainly and sadly lead to more unnecessary suffering, hospitalizations and potentially death,” Walensky warned.

Some counties are woefully behind the national mark of 48.3% fully vaccinated, and some are just a little behind. But all have stalled in their efforts to vaccinate many more residents — and in some cases, to induce those who got a first dose to come back for a second one.

In Greene County, for instance, only 45% are at least partially vaccinated and just 40% are fully vaccinated. In Colorado’s Mesa County, home to Grand Junction, 46% are partially vaccinated and 42% have full protection. In Las Vegas and the rest of Clark County, 51% are partially vaccinated and 41% are fully vaccinated.

And in Texas’ Galveston County, home to Giddings, around 45% of residents are fully vaccinated, a number that has scarcely budged in recent months, according to the chief health officer there.

“I’d say there’s hesitancy and I’d use another word — obstinance,” said Dr. Philip Keiser, a University of Texas infectious disease expert who’s been Galveston County’s Local Health Authority since 2016. “There’s this attitude, ‘You can’t make me!’”