It's time for another update on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic in this country, and the news is ... not good. The nation appears to be sliding irreversibly toward a summer pandemic surge, and one significant enough to have hospitals in some regions reactivating emergency measures that they had left behind after vaccinations and social distancing measures reduced hospitalizations to manageable, and there's further concerns that the current surge may be severe enough to overlap with the already expected fall and winter surge once cold weather drives Americans back indoors.
How did we get here? There's several reasons, but the short answer is that vaccination efforts have lagged enough, in some communities, for the now widespread delta variant to take hold among the unvaccinated. The new surge of patients is made up almost entirely of unvaccinated Americans, with approximately 97% or more of hospital patients being Americans who haven't gotten the vaccine.
That means the victims of the new surge are skewing younger, including hospitalizations of children who are too young to get any of the current vaccines. Immunocompromised and immunosuppressed patients are also being hospitalized; those Americans either can't get vaccinated due to severe medical risks or have immune systems that have not responded effectively to administered vaccines, leaving them without immunity. The delta variant that is now responsible for most U.S. infections is also believed to be both more contagious and more severe than previous pandemic variants—exactly what health officials were afraid of, when urging Americans to get vaccinated so that American cities could reach "herd immunity" before new variants could reach them.
The Wall Street Journal reports that some hospitals are now "reactivating surge plans used in the peak of the pandemic," and that hospitalizations may "potentially reach new pandemic peaks" in areas with low vaccination rates.
The new pandemic surge can be directly attributed to vaccine hesitancy, with low-vaccination states like Arkansas now facing dire potential conditions and rising death tolls. The situation in Arkansas may get exceptionally bad; less than 44% of eligible Arkansas residents have been fully vaccinated, with one health official grumbling to The New York Times that for about a third of unvaccinated residents, "I don’t think there’s a thing in the world we could do to get them to get vaccinated" and that knocking on doors to offer the vaccine "would probably do more harm than good" in the conservative state.
For the most part, then, the warned-of situation has now come to pass. High correlation between low vaccination rates and Republicanism is resulting in a new surge of deaths in majority-Republican communities. Hospitalizations in places like Jacksonville, Florida, are threatening to top the worst of last winter's horrific surge.
Welcome to the new reality, brought to you by Fox News and Republican leaders that have bellowed vaccine conspiracy theories while declaring that basic public health precautions during a deadly pandemic are tyranny. Welcome to the Republican pandemic surge.
That doesn't mean, however, that the new surge is confined solely to Republican states. Even as hard-conservative regions inside Arkansas, North Carolina, Florida, and other Republican-led areas face the prospect of new record surges, even Los Angeles County, in California, is seeing a steep enough surge of new cases to require the return of universal public mask mandates. The massive county has struggled through each point in the pandemic from a combination of widespread poverty in some regions and stubborn anti-government conservatism in more rural enclaves. Meanwhile, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is refusing to enforce the new mask mandate, claiming it goes against Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. (This appears to be a misleading stance at best; while the CDC has indeed said that vaccinated Americans are generally safe even without masks, experts have continued to urge masks in areas with high levels of community transmission, citing the small but still-present risk of breakthrough infections among the vaccinated.)
Even more importantly, the virus is surging among Americans who cannot be vaccinated for very good reasons. This surge is, again, almost entirely among the unvaccinated, but that doesn't mean it's running rampant only among Americans that have flatly refused vaccination. Children too young to receive the vaccine and the already immunocompromised are being hospitalized in this new surge—a direct result of low vaccination rates in the rest of their communities allowing the new delta variant to spread unchecked.
Worse still, rampant transmission of new variants among unvaccinated Americans has a non-zero chance of producing even more dangerous variants in the near future. Every new infection has a chance to produce a new virus mutation; each new mutation may end up being one that can evade current vaccines—and, potentially, mutate into variations that become difficult to control with any new vaccine. It's not just a new surge of deaths now on the cusp of overwhelming regional health systems; low vaccination rates in any community pose a danger of birthing an entirely new pandemic.
New approval polls show that the Biden administration continues to enjoy high support for their pandemic response, even as a conservative rump claims Biden is focusing "too much" on vaccinating Americans and continues to voice distrust for government safety measures. Whether that will last is unclear; on one hand, the pandemic is primarily spreading among conservatives who didn't want Biden's interventions to begin with. On the other, top Republican voices (and, of course, Fox News) will assuredly attempt to blame a new surge of mostly Republican deaths in mostly Republican areas as a failure of the Biden administration, rather than their own conspiracy-peddling non leadership.
Biden himself may be doing his team no favors by being unwilling to fully condemn the conspiracy-enabling Facebook for the rampant propaganda Facebook itself has identified and acknowledged on its platform—while refusing to act against the top identified propagandists.
In any event, the stage is now set. We are on the cusp of a new deadly pandemic surge, one centered primarily in Republican-run states and cities with low vaccination rates and high resistance to masking but which will undoubtably spread through the rest of the nation to at least some extent. It may overrun regional hospital systems; the full danger posed by that will depend on whether health systems in high-vaccination areas are able to accept some of those patients or are not. Even the willfully obtuse U.S. stock market is becoming alarmed by the reversal of our pandemic successes.
It can be blamed, near exclusively, on conservative disinformation about the pandemic and the vaccine pushed by Republican leaders and by Fox News personalities. Meanwhile, inside Fox News itself, the same network sowing nationwide suspicion as to the supposed dangers of vaccination and supposed triviality of COVID-19 infections has already implemented their own "vaccine passports" for use inside their buildings. Anti-vaccine rhetoric is meant to be a political tool for conservative governors like the ambitious Ron DeSantis and ever-grifting movement hacks like Tucker Carlson. Behind the scenes, they're all getting vaccinated and demanding pandemic safety measures even as they condemn those things to their conservative base.