Alexander Nazaryan ·National Correspondent
WASHINGTON — States with low vaccination rates are driving a new coronavirus wave sweeping over the nation, with the much more transmissible Delta strain filling hospitals across the southern U.S.
Two states, Texas and Florida, stand out as hot spots, accounting for a full third of all new cases nationwide last week, White House pandemic response coordinator Jeff Zients revealed during a Monday press briefing. Over the weekend, Florida had the unwelcome distinction of breaking a national record, reporting 21,000 new cases, the most for one day in the state since the pandemic began in early 2020.
“From the start, we’ve known this virus is unpredictable,” Zients said. Last month, President Biden all but declared victory over the coronavirus, saying in a July 4 speech that it “no longer paralyzes our nation.” Even then, however, the Delta variant was proliferating with increasing speed across the country. The president’s triumphalism has been called premature, giving people a false sense of security.
Republican governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas had not waited for Biden to herald the pandemic’s end, with DeSantis in particular having spent much of the summer basking in conservative adulation over his handling of the pandemic. Criticism of that approach has grown louder of late, especially as localities seek to impose new mask mandates in keeping with new guidance issued last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
DeSantis and Abbott have vigorously fought such mandates in recent days, reviving a long-simmering culture war. Public health experts, meanwhile, say that masks can help blunt the one advantage the Delta variant appears to enjoy: its increased transmissibility.
Overall, the coronavirus vaccines remain exceptionally good at preventing infection in the first place. And even when vaccinated people do become infected with the Delta variant, they tend to experience only mild illness. But they still can spread the coronavirus, as a recent case study of a Provincetown, Mass., cluster showed. It was the Provincetown cluster that forced the CDC to come out in favor of masking in areas of high or substantial viral activity.
Because most people in Provincetown were vaccinated, only seven out of about 900 people in the cluster ended up in the hospital. Even more significant, none died. “Our vaccines did exactly what they were supposed to do,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on Monday. In addition, she noted that authorities there quickly reimposed a mask mandate, a decision that helped end the outbreak.
Vaccination rates in Provincetown are among the highest in Massachusetts, which is the second-most vaccinated state in the nation after Vermont. And there appeared to be little resistance to masking among its residents and visitors.
That doesn’t make Provincetown an especially instructive case when it comes to tracking the progress of the pandemic nationwide. Zients said that the seven states with the lowest vaccination rates (Alabama, Mississippi, Wyoming, Arkansas, Louisiana, Idaho and Georgia) account for 8.5 percent of the U.S. population but 17 percent of all new cases.
“This remains a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Walensky reminded on Monday, “where the vast majority of spread in this country is among those who are unvaccinated.”
Texas has fully vaccinated 44 percent of its residents, while Florida has immunized 49 percent. DeSantis spent much of the spring lashing out against vaccine mandates and passports. He also recently invited Mark McDonald, an anti-vaccine advocate from Los Angeles, to a pandemic summit.
Abbott recently signed a measure banning vaccine and mask mandates. Like DeSantis, he is a potential 2024 candidate for president.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Florida setting a nationwide weekend case record; it set a statewide record.