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Unvaccinated COVID patients filling up some US hospitals, doctors say

Registered nurse Elle Lauron (top, center) and another caregiver care for a COVID-19 patient in the improvised COVID-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills neighborhood on July 30, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Hospitals are surging with unvaccinated patients infected with the delta variant, which could affect car-accident victims and other non-COVID-19 patients who need hospital care, doctors say.

“None of these patients thought they would get the virus, but the delta variant has proven to be so highly contagious that even the young and the healthy, including pregnant patients, are now starting to fill up our hospitals,” said Dr. Neil Finkler, chief clinical officer for AdventHealth Central Florida.

More than 90% of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, he said.

In Austin, Texas, “Our ICU (intensive care unit) capacity is reaching a critical point where the level of risk to the entire community has significantly increased, and not just to those who are needing treatment for COVID,” Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said in a statement.

“If we fail to come together as a community now, we jeopardize the lives of loved ones who might need critical care.”

In Mississippi, COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased significantly among younger patients, State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said. All 88 beds in the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s intensive care unit had filled up by Friday, according to data from the state’s health department.

In Louisiana, “We’re becoming victims of the unvaccinated,” said Dr. Christopher Thomas, critical care physician at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge.

“We currently are overwhelming our bed capacity. We’re creating burnout for our teams, and, honestly, we’re beginning to impact the rest of the health care for the community.”

At the Louisiana hospital, 97% of COVID-19 patients in the ICU were unvaccinated, Thomas said. As of Friday, the average age of COVID-19 patients in the ICU was 48.

“That means there are children — with parents — who are now in the hospital,” he said.

With only 49.6% of Americans fully vaccinated as of Sunday, more businesses and cities such as Birmingham, New Orleans and Louisville are issuing mask mandates to fight the delta variant.

The delta strain is several times more contagious than the original strain of novel coronavirus and appears to cause more severe disease, according to an internal presentation from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Given higher transmissibility and current vaccine coverage, universal masking is essential to reduce transmission of the Delta variant,” the internal CDC documents said.

Unvaccinated people are causing tougher mask guidance

Many of those who don’t want to wear masks or get vaccinated are prolonging the pandemic, doctors say.

“We know that the vast majority of the spread is still by unvaccinated people. And I think that that is the part that’s been lost in the messaging from the CDC,” said Dr. Leana Wen, visiting professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.

“The problem is not with the vaccinated. The problem remains with the unvaccinated. And the way that we can get out of this pandemic is to increase vaccination rates,” she said.

“So the CDC should actually be saying, ‘Look, the reason we’re doing indoor mandates is because the unvaccinated cannot be trusted to put on masks. That’s why the vaccinated also have to be putting on masks.’”

Confusion about he new mask guidance, explained

Many Americans were surprised to hear the CDC’s updated guidance saying everyone — even fully vaccinated people — should wear face masks indoors in areas of high or substantial transmission.

To be clear: “It’s mostly about protecting the unvaccinated. That’s where the real serious risks of illness are,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Those who are vaccinated are less likely to get infected, Collins said. When breakthrough infections do happen in vaccinated people, they usually lead to mild or no symptoms at all.

But vaccinated people who get breakthrough infections might be able to spread COVID-19 as easily as unvaccinated people, according to the CDC.

“High viral loads suggest an increased risk of transmission and raised concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with delta can transmit the virus,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Friday.

That finding “was a pivotal discovery leading to CDC’s updated mask recommendation,” Walensky said.

But Collins said it’s critical to emphasize how much more danger unvaccinated people are in, compared to vaccinated people. He said those who are not vaccinated:

  • Are three times more likely to get infected.
  • Are eight times more likely to get symptoms when infected.
  • Are 25 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19.

“If anybody’s listening who’s been on the fence, it’s a tipping point now,” Collins said. “Let’s try to get everybody out there and start to be a part of the winning team.”

In some places, vaccinations are picking up

As more Americans become educated about the delta variant, vaccinations are increasing.

According to CDC data, 816,023 doses were administered Saturday — the fifth straight day the agency recorded more than 700,000 shots in arms. The 7-day average of administered doses is 662,529 per day, the highest average since July 7.

Overall, 49.6% of the US population — 168.4 million people — are fully vaccinated. Of those 12 and older, 58.1% are fully vaccinated.

Nationwide, the rate of vaccinations this past week is up more than 25% compared to three weeks ago.

In Alabama and Arkansas, which both have about 35% of residents fully vaccinated, the rates of new doses given have doubled compared to three weeks ago.

Ohio has had “a significant increase” in vaccination rates, particularly in rural areas, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine said Sunday.

“I think … the fear of the delta variant is certainly one of the causes,” DeWine said.

He said the state is now focusing on outreach efforts to the “under-vaccinated” Medicaid population through incentives like $100 cash awards for getting the vaccinated.

DeWine also credited the state’s “Vax-a-Million” program for boosting vaccinations.

“We think well over 100,000 extra people were vaccinated, at a minimum, because of that,” DeWine said. “It was very, very successful.”

But, “the game is still with getting people vaccinated,” he said. “We have room to grow.”