MISSION, Kan. — COVID-19 cases tripled in the U.S. over two weeks amid an onslaught of vaccine misinformation that is straining hospitals, exhausting doctors and pushing clergy into the fray.
“Our staff, they are frustrated,” said Chad Neilsen, director of infection prevention at UF Health Jacksonville, a Florida hospital that is canceling elective surgeries and procedures after the number of mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 inpatients at its two campuses jumped to 134, up from a low of 16 in mid-May.
“They are tired. They are thinking this is déjà vu all over again, and there is some anger because we know that this is a largely preventable situation, and people are not taking advantage of the vaccine.”
Across the U.S., the seven-day rolling average for daily new cases rose over the past two weeks to more than 37,000 on Tuesday, up from less than 13,700 on July 6, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Health officials blame the delta variant and slowing vaccination rates. Just 56.2% of Americans have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Louisiana, health officials reported 5,388 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday — the third-highest daily count since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020. Hospitalizations for the disease rose to 844 statewide, up more than 600 since mid-June.
Utah reported having 295 people hospitalized due to the virus, the highest number since February. The state has averaged about 622 confirmed cases per day over the last week, about triple the infection rate at its lowest point in early June. Health data shows the surge is almost entirely connected to unvaccinated people.
“It is like seeing the car wreck before it happens,” said Dr. James Williams, a clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at Texas Tech, who has recently started treating more COVID-19 patients. “None of us want to go through this again.”
He said the patients are younger — many in their 20s, 30s and 40s — and overwhelmingly unvaccinated.
As lead pastor of one of Missouri’s largest churches, Jeremy Johnson has heard the reasons congregants don’t want the COVID-19 vaccine. He wants them to know it’s not only OK to get vaccinated, it’s what the Bible urges.
“I think there is a big influence of fear,” said Johnson, whose Springfield-based church also has a campus in Nixa and another about to open in Republic. “A fear of trusting something apart from scripture, a fear of trusting something apart from a political party they’re more comfortable following. A fear of trusting in science. We hear that: ‘I trust in God, not science.’ But the truth is science and God are not something you have to choose between.”
Now many churches in southwestern Missouri, like Johnson’s Assembly of God-affiliated North Point Church, are hosting vaccination clinics. Meanwhile, about 200 church leaders have signed onto a statement urging Christians to get vaccinated, and on Wednesday announced a follow-up public service campaign.
Opposition to vaccination is especially strong among white evangelical Protestants, who make up more than one-third of Missouri’s residents, according to a 2019 report by the Pew Research Center.
“We found that the faith community is very influential, very trusted, and to me that is one of the answers as to how you get your vaccination rates up,” said Ken McClure, mayor of Springfield.
The two hospitals in his city are teeming with patients, reaching record and near-record pandemic highs. Steve Edwards, who is the CEO of CoxHealth in Springfield, tweeted that the hospital has brought in 175 traveling nurses and has 46 more scheduled to arrive by Monday.
“Grateful for the help,” wrote Edwards, who previously tweeted that anyone spreading misinformation about the vaccine should “shut up.”
Jacob Burmood, a 40-year-old Kansas City, Missouri, artist, said his mother has been promoting vaccine conspiracy theories even though her husband — Burmood’s stepfather — is hospitalized on a ventilator in Springfield.
“It is really, really sad, and it is really frustrating,” he said.
Burmood recalled how his mother had recently fallen ill and “was trying to tell me that vaccinated people got her sick, and it wasn’t even COVID. I just shut her down. I said, ‘Mom, I can’t talk to you about conspiracy theories right now.’ ... You need to go to a hospital. You are going to die.”
His mother, who is in her 70s, has since recovered.
In New York City, workers in city-run hospitals and health clinics will be required to get vaccinated or get tested weekly as officials battle a rise in COVID-19 cases, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.
De Blasio’s order will not apply to teachers, police officers and other city employees, but it’s part of the city’s intense focus on vaccinations amid an increase in delta variant infections.
The number of vaccine doses being given out daily in the city has dropped to less than 18,000, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in early April. About 65% of all adults are fully vaccinated, but the inoculation rate is around 25% among Black adults under age 45. About 45% of the workforce in the city’s public hospital system is Black.
Meanwhile, caseloads have been rising in the city for weeks, and health officials say the variant makes up about 7 in 10 cases they sequence.
“We need our health care workers to be vaccinated, and it’s getting dangerous with the delta variant,” de Blasio told CNN.
Back in Louisiana, New Orleans officials weighed a possible revival of at least some of the mitigation efforts that had been eased as the disease was waning.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the city’s top health official, Dr. Jennifer Avegno, were expected to make an announcement later Wednesday. On Tuesday, Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell said “all options are on the table.”
WASHINGTON — Lagging vaccination rates among nursing home staff are being linked to a national increase in COVID-19 infections and deaths at senior facilities, and are at the center of a federal investigation in a hard-hit Colorado location where disease detectives found many workers were not inoculated.
The investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of facilities in the Grand Junction, Colorado, area raises concerns among public health doctors that successes in protecting vulnerable elders with vaccines could be in peril as the more aggressive delta variant spreads across the country.
Nationally about 59% of nursing home staff have gotten their shots, about the same as the overall percentage of fully vaccinated adults — but significantly lower than the roughly 80% of residents who are vaccinated, according to Medicare. And some states have much lower vaccination rates of around 40%.
Some policy experts are urging the government to close the gap by requiring nursing home staffers get shots, a mandate the Biden administration has been reluctant to issue. Nursing home operators fear such a move could backfire, prompting many staffers with vaccine qualms to simply quit their jobs.
To be sure, the vast majority of fully vaccinated people who become infected with the delta variant suffer only mild symptoms.
But “older adults may not respond fully to the vaccine and there’s enormous risk of someone coming in with the virus,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“Vaccinating workers in nursing homes is a national emergency because the delta variant is a threat even to those already vaccinated,” he said.
The CDC conducted its investigation of delta variant outbreaks in elder care facilities in Mesa County, Colorado, in May and June. The area is a coronavirus hot spot. The agency said it is assisting states and counties throughout the nation as part of the White House’s COVID-19 “surge teams.”
Nationally, data collected by CDC show that deaths and confirmed infections among nursing home staff have decreased significantly since vaccinations began in January. But the number of deaths reported among staff have begun creeping up again, fueling new concerns.
At one memory care facility in the Grand Junction area, 16 fully vaccinated residents were infected and four died, according to a CDC slide provided to The Associated Press. The residents who died were described as being in hospice care, with a median age of 93, indicating they were particularly frail.
The CDC has not released the findings of its investigation publicly, but said it plans to publish the results in an upcoming Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The slide was shared with the AP by a person involved in internal deliberations, who requested anonymity because they did not have permission to release the data.
Of the 16 fully vaccinated residents infected at the memory care facility, CDC found that 13 developed symptoms, described as mild in most cases.
The CDC investigated several nursing homes in Mesa County that were experiencing new outbreaks. At one location — described as “Facility A” — 42% of the staff were still not fully vaccinated, contrasting with only about 8% of residents who had failed to complete their shots.
The CDC found a COVID-19 infection rate of 30% among vaccinated residents and staff at the facility, with residents accounting for the vast majority of cases.
Throughout the pandemic, people in long-term care facilities have carried a disproportionate burden of suffering and death, not to mention increased isolation due to lockdowns. It’s estimated that nursing home residents represent about 1% of the U.S. population, but they account for about 22% of COVID-19 deaths — more than 133,400 people whose lives have been lost.
Experts generally agree that staff are one of the main triggers of nursing home outbreaks, because workers may unwittingly bring the virus in from the surrounding community before developing symptoms.
With the arrival of vaccines and an aggressive effort to get residents immunized, cases and deaths plummeted and nursing homes emerged from lockdown. But COVID-19 has not been wiped out. As of the week ending July 4, there were 410 residents sickened nationwide and 146 who died.
Colorado is not alone in seeing nursing home outbreaks as large shares of staff remain unvaccinated.
In Indiana, seven residents died from COVID-19 at a facility where less than half the staff — 44% — was fully vaccinated, said Howard County health officer Dr. Emily Backer. Eleven additional residents tested positive in the outbreak that officials believe started in mid-June.
One of the people who died was fully vaccinated, and five fully vaccinated residents were among those who tested positive, Backer added. She would not name the facility.
Backer acknowledged that the facility’s 44% staff vaccination rate was “lower than we’d like.”
“But at this point,” she added, “they can’t force them.”
Backer said she’s troubled by continued resistance to vaccination, fueled by exaggerated claims about side effects. Some experts fear that hard-won progress in putting down nursing home outbreaks could be lost, at least in some communities.
Laura Gelezunas has firsthand experience with a breakthrough case in a nursing home.
After numerous calls and emails to her mother’s Missouri nursing home and the company’s headquarters in Tennessee, Gelezunas finally got confirmation that her mom’s congestion, headache and sore throat were symptoms of COVID-19.
However, Gelezunas said the facility wasn’t transparent about how her vaccinated mother, Joann, got sick. While the home has pointed to outside visitors, Gelezunas said her mother’s only visitors have been her brother and his wife, who are both vaccinated. Gelezunas believes it was an unvaccinated staff member, but the home has yet to give her answers.
Gelezunas asked that her mother interact with only vaccinated workers, but the directors said they couldn’t make promises because of privacy reasons and their inability to mandate inoculations for workers.
“My mom is bedridden. I got people taking intimate care of her and you’re telling me you can’t tell me that at $7,500 a month that my mom can’t have someone that’s vaccinated take care of her,” said Gelezunas, who lives in Mexico.
Joann told her daughter that between 12 and 15 residents were infected with the virus recently, which she found out from one of her aides.
When it comes to requiring vaccinations, one obstacle is that COVID-19 vaccines aren’t yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and are being administered under emergency authorization.
“What we need to do is get past the emergency use basis, to have (vaccination) be a standard of care,” said Terry Fulmer, president of the John A. Hartford Foundation, a nonprofit working to improve care for older adults.
Highlighting the potential vulnerability, government numbers show a wide disparity among states in nursing home vaccinations. Vermont has fully vaccinated 95% of its nursing home residents, but in Nevada the figure is 61%. Hawaii is the leader for staff vaccinations, with 84% completely vaccinated. But in Louisiana, it’s half that, 42%.
Harvard health care policy professor David Grabowski said he believes trust is the core question for many nursing home staffers who remain unvaccinated. Low-wage workers may not have much confidence in vaccine messaging from management at their facilities.
“I think some of this mirrors what we see in the overall population, but among health care workers it is really disconcerting,” Grabowski said.
Indiana county health official Backer blames swirling misinformation.
“There’s a lot of really bad information out there that’s completely untrue,” she said. “It’s really sad because I think we have the power to end this with vaccination. Nobody else needs to die from this.”
WASHINGTON — Jill Biden embarked Wednesday on her first solo international trip as first lady, leading a U.S. delegation to the Olympic Games in Tokyo, where the coronavirus is surging and COVID-19 infections have climbed to a six-month high.
She will stop in Alaska on the way to Japan, and in Hawaii before she returns to Washington.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that President Joe Biden and the first lady both felt it was important that the delegation be led “at the highest level,” and that Jill Biden looked forward to the long journey to help support U.S. athletes, who will be competing in some of the starkest conditions for an Olympic Games.
She has a robust agenda for roughly 48 hours on the ground in Japan’s capital.
The first lady is set to arrive at Yokota Air Force Base in Tokyo on Thursday afternoon and have dinner with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his wife, Mariko Suga, at Akasaka Palace.
She is to return to the palace Friday and be hosted by Mariko Suga. Biden will hold a virtual get-together with members of Team USA before meeting Emperor Naruhito at the Imperial Palace. She attends the opening ceremony for the games in the evening.
On Saturday, the first lady will dedicate a room in the residence of the U.S. chief of mission to former U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and his wife, Irene Hirano Inouye. The senator died in 2012, and his wife died last year.
Jill Biden will also host a U.S. vs. Mexico softball watch party at the U.S. Embassy for staff and their families, and cheer U.S. athletes competing in several events before leaving Tokyo.
The trip opens Wednesday at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, where the first lady meets with military and veteran families who stay at Alaska Fisher House free of charge when a loved one is hospitalized. She will also visit Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage to encourage people to get their COVID-19 vaccinations.
The first lady will tour a Honolulu vaccination clinic before she returns to Washington.
Tokyo’s COVID-19 infections surged to a six-month high Wednesday with 1,832 new cases logged just two days before the games open.
The Olympic host city is now under its fourth state of emergency, which runs through Aug. 22, spanning the duration of the Olympic Games that open Friday and end Aug. 8. Fans are banned from all venues in the Tokyo area, with limited audiences at a few outlying sites.
Suga’s government has been criticized for what some say is prioritizing Olympic sport over public health, and there has been little fanfare in the run-up to the Games, which were postponed from last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Imperial Palace said last month that Naruhito is “extremely worried” that the games could accelerate the spread of the coronavirus.
Jill Biden is fully vaccinated. Psaki, the White House press secretary, said the U.S. delegation will follow “very strict” health and safety protocols during the trip, including limiting their engagement with the public and keeping as small a footprint as possible.
President Joe Biden is not attending the Games.