Covid Vaccine Lag in U.S. South May Lead to Summer Wave of Infections

In 15 states, including Arkansas, the Carolinas, Georgia and Louisiana, about half of adults or fewer have had a dose. Here’s the latest pandemic news.,

At a vaccination site in Birmingham, Ala., last month. About half of adults in Alabama have had a first vaccine dose.
At a vaccination site in Birmingham, Ala., last month. About half of adults in Alabama have had a first vaccine dose.Credit…Jay Reeves/Associated Press

Experts are concerned that states across the South, where vaccination rates are lagging, could face a surge in coronavirus cases over the summer.

A dozen states — many of them in the Northeast, including Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut — have already reached a benchmark of at least 70 percent of adults with at least one vaccine dose, a goal President Biden has set for the nation to make by July 4. But in the South, that marker is nowhere in sight for several states.

In 15 states — including Arkansas, the Carolinas, Georgia and Louisiana — about half of adults or fewer have received a dose, according to a New York Times analysis. In two states, Alabama and Mississippi, it would take about a year to get one dose to 70 percent of the population at the current pace of distribution.

Public-health experts and officials in states with lower vaccination rates say the president’s benchmark will help reduce cases and deaths but is somewhat arbitrary — even if 70 percent of adults are vaccinated, the virus and its more contagious variants can spread among those who are not.

But they remain concerned that their residents are more susceptible to infection as restrictions ease across the country, the sense of urgency to get vaccinated declines and many Americans in warmer climates avoid the heat by heading indoors, where the virus spreads more efficiently.

If there is a summer surge across the South, experts believe it won’t be as grave as last summer’s because at least some people are vaccinated and treatments have improved. But memories of last summer, when cases rose quickly after some Southern states rushed to reopen, are still fresh. Younger people, who are less likely to be vaccinated, will be the most vulnerable during any surge this summer, said Dr. Edward Trapido, an epidemiologist and associate dean for research at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health. While death or severe illness is not as common for young people with Covid-19, it’s still possible, he said.

“The surge is not likely to end up tying up hospitals, and causing lots of deaths,” Dr. Trapido said. “There are certain populations that are undervaccinated, and that’s where we will expect to see a rise.”

To avoid a summer surge, states across the South need to catch up to those in the Northeast which have already gotten at least one dose to 70 percent of their populations, according to Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine.

“We’re just we’re not even close to that in the Southern states,” Dr. Hotez said. He said he foresees a new wave in the South because “we’re so underachieving in terms of vaccination.”

Mississippi, for example, has the country’s lowest vaccination rate, with 34 percent of the population having received at least one shot. Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi said on Sunday that despite the low vaccination numbers, case numbers indicated the risk of contracting Covid-19 in his state was low.

Another worry is testing. But Dr. Trapido said a decline in testing would make it difficult to contain outbreaks ahead of a potential summer surge.

Nationally, the number of daily tests reported is down significantly. On Thursday, about 316,000 tests were performed, far below the winter peak when more than two million tests were being administrated some days, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We don’t have so many people rushing for testing because all the messaging is about vaccines,” Dr. Trapido said. “It’s important to remind people that if you’re concerned, it’s worth getting tested.”

Even statewide figures that appear promising can gloss over local problem areas, Dr. Joseph Kanter, the top health official in Louisiana, said in mid-May. In Louisiana, less than 20 percent of people in some parishes have received a first dose.

“We’ve got a significant percentage of Louisiana that has initiated, but it’s not herd immunity,” Dr. Kanter said, referring to the share of the total population that needs to acquire resistance to the virus to slow transmission. “It’s nowhere close to it.”

Preparing a dose of the Pfizer vaccine in Miami last month.
Preparing a dose of the Pfizer vaccine in Miami last month.Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

As the United States edges closer to President Biden’s goal of a 70 percent vaccination rate, many people are beginning to wonder how long their protection will last.

Although many scientists estimate that the vaccines authorized in the United States will last at least a year, no one knows for sure. It’s also unclear whether emerging variants of the coronavirus will change our vaccination needs.

Here’s what scientists know so far.

Early signs are encouraging. Researchers have been drawing blood from volunteers in vaccine trials and measuring their levels of antibodies and immune cells that target the coronavirus. The levels are dropping, but gradually. It’s possible that with this slow rate of decline, vaccine protection will remain strong for a long time. People who were previously infected and then received the vaccine may enjoy even more durable protection.

Scientists have already found that vaccines using different technologies can vary in their effectiveness. The strongest vaccines include Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, both of which are based on RNA molecules. Vaccines relying on inactivated viruses, such as those made by Sinopharm in China and Bharat Biotech in India, have proved somewhat less effective.

Scientists are searching for biological markers that could reveal when the protection from a vaccine is no longer enough to hold back the coronavirus. It’s possible that a certain level of antibodies marks a threshold: If your blood measures above that level, you’re in good shape, but if you’re below it, you’re at greater risk of infection.

The emergence of variants in recent months has accelerated research on boosters. Some variants have mutations that led them to spread swiftly. Others carry mutations that might blunt the effectiveness of authorized vaccines. But at this point, scientists still have only a smattering of clues about how existing vaccines work against different variants.

Concertgoers stretched out on the great lawn in July of 2012, to hear the New York Philharmonic perform in Central Park.
Concertgoers stretched out on the great lawn in July of 2012, to hear the New York Philharmonic perform in Central Park.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Seeking a grand symbol of New York’s revitalization after a brutal pandemic year, Mayor Bill de Blasio is planning a large-scale performance by multiple acts and has called on Clive Davis, the 89-year-old producer and music-industry eminence, to pull it together.

The show, tentatively set for Aug. 21, a work in progress, with no artists confirmed, though Mr. Davis — whose five-decade career highlights have included working with Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys and Whitney Houston — said he was aiming for eight “iconic” stars to perform a three-hour show for 60,000 attendees and a worldwide television audience.

Mr. de Blasio said in an interview that the concert was part of a “Homecoming Week” to show that New York City is coming back from the pandemic — a celebration for residents and those in the region who may not have visited in a while.

The show would be the latest in a storied tradition of Central Park super-productions that tend to attract worldwide coverage and to paint New York as a peaceful, cosmopolitan haven for the arts.

Many New Yorkers, especially the mayor, may welcome that view after the prevalence of pandemic-era images like a deserted Times Square and boarded-up storefronts amid last summer’s protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

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