The Biden administration said Monday that COVID-19 is clearly “not done with us,” but that vaccines remain a critical barrier of protection against disease and transmission amid concerns about “breakthrough” infections from aggressive variants.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is fully vaccinated, said he tested positive but the shots appeared to keep him from getting anything more than mild symptoms akin to a sinus infection.
The report set off a scramble to track down the senator’s possible contacts as Capitol Hill debates a high-profile infrastructure package and scientists try to understand the rate of spread from immunized persons.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention insists the likelihood of a vaccinated person getting infected remains low, though the Senate incident adds to the drip-drip of anecdotal reports from vaccinated persons as the country contends with the delta variant.
The CDC recently said unvaccinated and vaccinated persons should wear masks in public indoor spaces due to data showing that when some vaccinated persons are infected, they contain a viral load big enough to spread the pathogen as easily as a non-vaccinated person.
“This remains a pandemic of the unvaccinated, where the vast majority of spread in this country is among those who are unvaccinated,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said in a White House coronavirus briefing.
“I want to be clear — while vaccinated people can spread the virus if they get a breakthrough infection, the odds of them getting sick in the first place are far lower than those who are unvaccinated,” she said. “In fact, places with more vaccination generally have less disease.”
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis found the share of vaccinated persons who’ve experienced an infection was below 1% in all reporting states.
Federal data show as of late July, fewer than 0.004% of those fully vaccinated had a breakthrough infection that put them in the hospital and fewer than 0.001% of the vaccinated died from a COVID-19 case.
Officials said daily uptake of vaccine doses has doubled or tripled in states like Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama as they battle rising hospitalizations, though scientists acknowledge the problem will get worse before it gets better.
“While we desperately want to be done with this pandemic, COVID-19 is clearly not done with us and so our battle must last a little longer,” Dr. Walensky said.
The worsening situation comes roughly a month after Mr. Biden celebrated the economic recovery from the pandemic with a White House cookout.
He’s been forced to address the challenge in public addresses — a speech on vaccines is scheduled for Tuesday — and recently ordered federal workers to get the shots or submit to weekly testing, signaling that carrots aren’t enough and the sticks are coming out.
Federal officials say there are 90 million Americans who are eligible for the vaccine, but haven’t come forward.
“We need them to do their part, roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated,” White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said.
Scary news and talk of mandates appear to be moving the needle.
“In the last seven days alone, 3 million Americans have gotten their first shot. That’s the highest seven-day total since July 4,” Mr. Zients said.
Federal data show as of Monday, 70% of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine, reaching Mr. Biden’s Independence Day goal nearly a month late.
Yet progress on the vaccination front is colliding with public confusion and mixed messages in prominent places.
Former President Barack Obama is reportedly holding a 60th birthday bash in Martha’s Vineyard with over 600 guests or staff and a Pearl Jam performance, raising eyebrows amid fears about the delta variant.
Axios reported the party this coming weekend will employ a COVID-19 coordinator who will coordinate vaccination status and testing, though it is unclear whether masks will be required.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki referred questions about the party to the Obama team, but stressed the party will be outdoors and take place in a region with “moderate” transmission.
Mr. Graham, meanwhile, said he started feeling flu-like symptoms late Saturday and saw the doctor early Monday. His positive test will likely spark new fears of breakthrough infections, though the senator interpreted his plight as a sign the shots are working.
“I feel like I have a sinus infection and at present time I have mild symptoms. I will be quarantining for 10 days,” he said in a statement from his office. “I am very glad I was vaccinated because without vaccination, I am certain I would not feel as well as I do now. My symptoms would be far worse.”
More broadly, people might find it paradoxical to see cases and hospitalizations rise even as vaccination uptake improves. But the shots take time to work.
Doses of the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech version are given 21 days apart and the Moderna shots are given 28 days apart.
A person is considered fully vaccinated 14 days after receiving the second dose or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The cable airwaves are filled with patients who regret not getting vaccinated.
“God. This is terrible,” Michael Freedy, 39, wrote. “I should have gotten the damn vaccine.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, unveiled new measures to require vaccination on Monday. He said transit workers in his state must get vaccinated by Labor Day or face weekly testing, expanding the type of mandate he imposed on public hospital workers.
He also urged the private sector to get tough.
“Private business, I am asking them, and suggesting to them: Go to vaccine-only admission,” Mr. Cuomo said.
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