Editor’s note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Center.
Mississippi health officials announced new recommendations to prevent the spread of the contagious delta variant, urging older residents to avoid indoor gatherings and unvaccinated people to wear masks in indoor public spaces, according to The New York Times.
The delta variant, which became the dominant variant in the U.S. last week, accounts for 52% of new COVID-19 cases. It’s spreading quickly in areas with unvaccinated people, including parts of Mississippi, which is tied for last with Alabama with 33% of residents fully vaccinated.
“We have seen an entire takeover of the delta variant for our transmission,” Thomas Dobbs, MD, the state health officer for Mississippi, said during a news briefing.
“We’re going to remain vulnerable for a long time,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to have some miraculous increase in a vaccination rate the next few weeks.”
Health officials are asking residents over age 65 and those with chronic underlying medical conditions to avoid all indoor mass gatherings, regardless of vaccination status. In addition, all unvaccinated residents should wear a mask when indoors in public settings. Health officials hope the new guidelines will slow the transmission from church groups, summer school classes, and nursing home outbreaks.
Mississippi reported about 250 cases per day during the last week, which is a 91% increase from the average two weeks ago, The New York Times reported. In addition, hospitalizations have increased by 34% from two weeks ago. About 95% of the new COVID-19 cases and 90% of the hospitalizations and deaths have been among unvaccinated people.
“It’s a disturbing and concerning trend that we’re seeing,” Paul Byers, MD, the state epidemiologist, told the newspaper. “We’re certainly moving in the wrong direction.”
A large part of northern Mississippi falls into one of the five major clusters in the U.S. with low vaccination rates, according to CNN. The clusters cross state lines and cover parts of eight states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas.
“Parts of the country are just as vulnerable, if not more vulnerable, than they were in December 2020,” Shweta Bansal, who leads the U.S. COVID-19 Vaccination Tracking project at Georgetown University, told CNN. Bansal and colleagues conducted an analysis to identify the clusters.
The five clusters include more than 15 million people. Among those, about 28% are fully vaccinated, which is much lower than the national rate of 48%, CNN reported. Most of the counties in the clusters have a population of less than 100,000 people, but they also include cities such as Montgomery, Alabama; Shreveport, Louisiana; and Amarillo, Texas.
Health officials are working at the community level to encourage COVID-19 vaccination at churches and local organizations, CNN reported, particularly in rural areas that lack adequate health care access. The five clusters could put the entire country at risk for COVID-19 surges and new variants, and most of the areas are already reporting increases in new cases.
“These clusters of unvaccinated people are what is standing in the way of us putting this virus down permanently,” Jonathan Reiner, MD, a professor of medicine at George Washington University, told CNN.
“We’ve been lucky with the variants so far that they’ve been relatively susceptible to our vaccine,” he said. “But the more you roll the dice, the more opportunities there will be for a resistant variant.”
The New York Times: “Mississippi urges ‘high-risk’ residents to avoid indoor mass gatherings as Delta variant spreads.”
Mississippi State Department of Health: “COVID-19 Press Conference — Delta Variant and New Preventive Recommendations, July 9, 2021.”
CNN: “Five undervaccinated clusters put the entire United States at risk.”