Federal health officials said Thursday the nation is wrangling the coronavirus as a whole, but they remain worried about states and localities that are lagging behind in the vaccine rollout.
Slightly more than half of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but uptake ranges widely, from about 70% in Vermont to around 35% in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Largely red states across the South are lagging behind in their vaccination rates compared to places such as Hawaii, New England and the Mid-Atlantic.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said he’s “fairly certain” the U.S. won’t see the type of widespread surges that marked the past year.
“What I am concerned about are those states in which the level of vaccination is low — that you may continue to see higher levels of cases as we get into the summer,” Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN.
President Biden is dispatching Vice President Kamala Harris on a vaccine tour that will focus on the South and Midwest as he pushes to get at least one dose into 70% of U.S. adults by July 4.
Right now, about 63% of adults have gotten one shot, and most people return for their second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna versions.
“We believe that getting to 70% would be going an extraordinarily long way to making sure that we have community protection,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC’s “Today” show on Thursday.
A dozen states have reached the target within their borders but the pace is uneven across the U.S.
“We have pockets of this country that have lower rates of vaccination,” Dr. Walensky said. “I worry that this virus is an opportunist and that where we have low rates of vaccination are where we may see it again. So really the issue now is to make sure we get to those communities as well.”
Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, said the South might be lagging behind due to “mistrust of government for different reasons among different populations, and less enthusiasm among state and local political leaders to support vaccines.”
Also, state leaders dropped restrictions and opened up their economies before they achieve high vaccination rates, reducing incentives for people to get the shots.
“Increasing access through multiple non-health care channels should help reach harder-to-reach populations and geographies. In addition to having the right messages, having the right messengers will also be very important to increase rates of vaccination in the South,” Dr. Udayakumar told The Washington Times.
Even as Ms. Harris hits the road, the White House has acknowledged that it isn’t always the best vaccine messenger in reaching deep-red parts of the country.
They’re relying on partnership with NASCAR and trusted local voices, including pastors and doctors, to get the word out as polls suggest Republicans are among the most resistant to the vaccines.
Minority populations also lag behind in vaccine uptake, relative to their share of the population, and rural regions sometimes experience access hurdles, which could explain some of the low rates in the South.
Dr. Walensky said there are a variety of hurdles they need to work through in reaching more arms, from giving the leery more information about what’s in the vaccines and how they work to providing paid time off from work to go get the shots.
“We anticipate that we will be able to reach more and more people,” she said. “And I would say every shot in every arm is a win because that person is now safe and protected from getting COVID-19.”