Vaccine regret went mainstream this week. Fear of getting sick could finally be encouraging some Americans to get their shots.

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Dr. Joseph Varon (right) speaks to a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas on December 29, 2020.

  • Several hospitalized coronavirus patients expressed regret this week for not getting vaccinated.
  • Their stories may be resonating with other unvaccinated Americans.
  • Vaccination rates are increasing in states with recent COVID-19 surges like Arkansas and Louisiana.
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US health authorities are calling it “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” In the last two weeks, average COVID-19 hospitalizations have risen more than 50%, with unvaccinated people now representing the vast majority – around 97% – of hospitalized cases, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For many of these patients, their illness was a wake-up call.

“I’m admitting young, healthy people to the hospital with very serious COVID infections,” Dr. Brytney Cobia, a hospitalist at Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote on Facebook on Sunday. “One of the last things they do before they’re intubated is beg me for the vaccine. I hold their hand and tell them that I’m sorry, but it’s too late.”

Several other hospitalized patients publicly expressed regret this week for not getting vaccinated.

Amanda Spencer, a 37-year-old woman from Ohio, told her local news site WBNS-10TV that she was initially worried about side effects from the shot. She spent 11 days in a medically-induced coma after getting COVID-19 in June.

“After what I went through, I would’ve much rather been sick for a couple of days and have the mild symptoms that maybe the shot causes than to go through what I went through,” Spencer said on Thursday.

Abderrahmane Fadi, a 60-year-old science teacher in the UK, told the BBC that spending nine days in the hospital with COVID-19 was “the punishment I deserve” for not getting vaccinated.

“It’s like a hammer in my head all the time: ‘Why didn’t you have the vaccine? You had all the chances, the opportunities, the appointments, the letters – everything,'” Fadi said.

These stories may be resonating with unvaccinated Americans lately.

Over the last week, the five states with the highest COVID-19 case rates – Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, and Nevada – had higher vaccination rates than the national average, the CDC said. In Louisiana, the number of first doses administered daily has risen 50% in the last two weeks, from roughly 3,600 to 5,400 per day. Arkansas’s daily first doses also rose 85% during that time, from around 2,800 to 5,300 per day.

“Whether it’s seeing loved ones sick or something else, it’s having an impact,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown School of Public Health, wrote of COVID-19 surges in states with rising vaccination rates.

Rising cases and hospitalizations could change the minds of vaccine skeptics

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Maryland National Guard Specialist James Truong (right) administers a Moderna vaccine at CASA de Maryland’s Wheaton Welcome Center in Wheaton, Maryland on May 21, 2021.

It’s hard to know exactly why vaccinations have risen in some states and not others. At the national level, average daily vaccinations have actually declined 15% in the last week, even though no state has vaccinated more than 75% of its residents so far, and 16 states haven’t crossed the 50% threshold.

“We can’t really say with any certainty why we’re seeing an uptick in vaccinations,” Mindy Faciane, a public information officer for the Louisiana Department of Health, told Insider. But rising hospitalizations may be having some effect, she added.

“We think some Louisianans are also seeing the rising numbers of cases and hospitalizations among the unvaccinated, seeing the more contagious Delta variant in circulation and how it’s affecting their communities, and understanding that it is really urgent,” Faciane said. “They’re working through whatever questions they may have had about the vaccine and are now extra motivated to protect themselves and their loved ones in a way they hadn’t before.”

Indeed, data collected by The Economist and polling site YouGov indicates that the escalating severity of the pandemic can successfully change the minds of vaccine skeptics. In Taiwan, for instance, people reported that they were more likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine following a spike in cases in May, which forced the country back into a partial lockdown.

“Anecdotally, we are hearing from pharmacists and healthcare providers administering shots that more Arkansans are seeing the urgency in the need to get vaccinated as cases increase in the state,” Arkansas’s state health director, Dr. José Romero, told Insider.

Romero said earlier this month that his department’s vaccination strategy includes highlighting stories of unvaccinated people who became severely ill from COVID-19 – like a couple whose baby was delivered while the mother was still on a ventilator.

“Those people are becoming ambassadors and getting these public service messages out,” Romero said, adding, “This couple in particular exemplifies the view that many, many people have in the state – that is, ‘This is nothing, it’s an insignificant viral infection’ – and really shows the consequences of that type of belief.”

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A 22% surge in US coronavirus deaths is hitting unvaccinated people hardest. Experts worry about the long-term effects for vaccinated people, too.

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El Paso County Medical Examiner’s Office staff roll bodies in bags labeled “COVID” from refrigerated trailers into the morgue office on November 23.

  • The US’s daily coronavirus deaths surged 22% in the past week – mostly among unvaccinated Americans.
  • Disease experts worry about breakthrough cases in older people or those who are immunocompromised.
  • Increased transmission could also allow the virus to mutate into a more dangerous strain.
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The US is far removed from the deadliest point in its coronavirus outbreak: The country reported more than 3,000 daily coronavirus deaths in January, compared with less than 275 daily deaths, on average, in the past week.

But average daily deaths surged 22% in the past seven days, following a record low of 30 deaths on July 11. In the past two weeks, average daily deaths rose 33%.

The vast majority these deaths are among unvaccinated Americans: Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC earlier this month that unvaccinated people represented more than 99% of recent coronavirus deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported Friday that more than 97% of people entering hospitals with symptomatic COVID-19 hadn’t received shots.

The US is now dealing with a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a press briefing.

“We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage because unvaccinated people are at risk, and communities that are fully vaccinated are generally faring well,” Walensky said.

But disease experts worry that allowing the virus to spread among unvaccinated people could give it more opportunities to mutate. That could pose a long-term risk for vaccinated people, too. Already, the Delta variant – now the dominant strain in the US – appears to be more transmissible than any other version of the virus detected so far.

“The worst-case scenario is if Delta mutates into something completely different, a completely different animal, and then our current vaccines are even less effective or ineffective,” Vivek Cherian, an internal-medicine physician in Baltimore, told Insider last month.

Experts also worry that increased transmission could result in more severe breakthrough infections – cases of COVID-19 diagnosed at least two weeks after someone is fully vaccinated – among older people or those who are immunocompromised, since vaccines may already be less effective among these groups.

People over 65 represent about 75% of breakthrough cases that result in hospitalization or death, according to the CDC.

The UK offers insight into what to expect in the US

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Outdoor dining in Soho, London, on April 18.

Disease experts worry that the US could soon follow in the footsteps of the UK, where average deaths have more than doubled in the past two weeks, from 17 to 40 a day. The UK’s average hospitalizations have also increased about 60% during that time, from about 380 to 615 a day.

That’s despite the fact that nearly 70% of UK residents have received at least one vaccine dose.

In the US, about 44% of the population remains unvaccinated. (That includes about 48 million children under age 12, for whom vaccines haven’t been authorized yet.)

The country is now administering as many daily vaccine doses as it was in late December, when vaccines were available only to healthcare workers and residents of long-term-care facilities. Just 384,000 daily doses were given out on average over the past week.

Some Americans, particularly in rural counties, may still struggle to access shots, while others can’t afford to take time off work to get vaccinated. But, for the most part, widespread vaccine hesitancy has slowed down vaccination rates.

About 18% of adults surveyed in a recent YouGov poll said they didn’t plan to get vaccinated, while 11% said they were unsure. These rates were significantly higher among Republicans and people in the Midwest and South.

Most vaccine-hesitant people in the survey said they were worried about side effects from coronavirus shots – though studies have shown that vaccine side effects are generally mild and fleeting. The vast majority of them also said they believed that the threat of the virus was exaggerated for political reasons.

Lifting mask and social-distancing mandates could delay herd immunity

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A couple at Madison Square Garden in New York City on June 20.

Despite lagging vaccination rates, most US states have lifted mask and social-distancing mandates. In states such as Delaware, Florida, Missouri, and South Carolina, masks are recommended but not required for unvaccinated people.

Some disease experts said removing these restrictions too soon could send the wrong message about the state of the pandemic.

“The concern is if you’re on the fence, and then you go outside and you see, ‘Hey, things are back to normal,’ that may decrease the chance of you wanting to even get vaccinated,” Cherian said.

For now, experts are hopeful that the US can still vaccinate at least 70 to 85% of its population – a threshold that may allow the country to reach herd immunity. But a new variant that evades protection from vaccines or prior infection could push that goal even further from view, so public-health officials remain determined to vaccinate more Americans as quickly as possible.

“If you get to that situation, then you essentially get us back to a level” that we were in before March 2020, Cherian said, adding: “That’s just not a place that you want to be.”

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COVID-19 hospitalizations reach the lowest they’ve been since early November

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A doctor checks the vital signs of a patient at the Intensive Care Unit of Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center in Tarzana, California on January 3, 2021.

  • COVID-19 hospitalizations are less than half of what they were during their peak last month. 
  • Cases and deaths have also been on the decline, but experts warn against complacency. 
  • Public health experts worry that new, more transmissible strains could cause another surge. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

COVID-19 hospitalizations across the country have been in decline over the past several weeks and this weekend dropped lower than they’ve been since early November.

Data from The COVID-19 Tracking Project shows that as of Saturday, 58,222 people were hospitalized, a more than 50% decrease from a peak of 132,476 hospitalizations on January 6. 

It’s also the first time that hospitalizations dropped below 60,000 since November 9. 

Coronavirus cases overall are on the decline. CNN reported that there was a 29% decrease in cases over the previous week, the largest drop during the course of the pandemic so far.

Data compiled by The Washington Post shows that new daily cases in the US hit a peak of 248,200 on January 12 and have dropped since. On Saturday, the COVID-19 Tracking Project reported 72,000 new cases. 

In a briefing, researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation said that declining cases could be attributed to vaccinations and declining seasonality, which they said could help keep cases on the decline until August. 

Over 42 million Americans have received at least their first shot of a vaccine, with more than 17 million receiving both doses, CDC data shows. 

While some experts have said the vaccinations may have played a role in decreasing cases, others, like Tom Frieden, a former Director of the CDC, told CNN that he doesn’t “think the vaccine is having much of an impact at all on case rates.” Frieden said it’s the “staying apart, wearing masks, not traveling, not mixing with others indoors,” that’s resulting in the decline. 

While cases and hospitalization may be on the decline, experts still warn that measures like wearing masks and socially distancing should remain in place to maintain the downward trend and not trigger another rise, especially with new and more transmissible variants. 

“It’s encouraging to see these trends coming down, but they’re coming down from an extraordinarily high place,” Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Rochelle Walensky said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

A study found that the Coronavirus variant that originated in the United Kingdom is spreading quickly across the US and is likely to become the most dominant variant in many states by next month. 

A new assessment found that this variant, called B.1.17, could be 30% to 70% deadlier than the original virus.

“This is why we’re telling people to not stop masking, not stop avoiding indoor social gatherings quite yet because we don’t really know what’s going to happen with this variant,” Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency medicine physician with Rhode Island’s Brown University, told CNN. “And we saw what happened last winter when we didn’t take Covid seriously enough.”

Have a news tip? Contact this reporter at salarshani@insider.com

 

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US daily COVID-19 hospitalizations have hovered above 100,000 for a month – but experts say the post-holiday surge is yet to come

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Respiratory therapist Andrew Hoyt cares for a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center in Chula Vista, California on December 21, 2020.

  • Saturday marked one month of more than 100,000 consecutive, daily coronavirus hospitalizations in the US.
  • Those numbers likely reflect people who were infected before the Christmas holiday.
  • Experts anticipate that hospitalizations will continue to climb, meaning the pandemic’s worst days may still be ahead.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The US coronavirus outbreak has continuously shattered records this winter, but Saturday marked a particularly gruesome milestone: one month of more than 100,000 consecutive, daily coronavirus hospitalizations.

Average daily cases also reached an all-time high of more than 275,000 on Saturday, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project. The US death toll has surpassed 350,000. 

The US’s average daily hospitalizations have more than tripled over the last three months, fueled by holiday travel, pandemic fatigue, and many state officials’ resistance to impose new lockdown restrictions. 

As of December 28, at least 280 of the nation’s hospitals had reached or exceeded maximum ICU capacity out of 4,824 hospitals for which data was available, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. In the week leading up to Christmas, nearly one-fifth of US hospitals with intensive care units reported that at least 95% of their ICU beds were full.

But hospitalizations are a lagging indicator: They usually reflect cases that were diagnosed a week ago.

“It takes somewhere between five and 10 days after an exposure to actually get sick from COVID and then it takes another week or so after that to be sick enough to need hospitalization,” Megan Ranney, an emergency-medicine physician at Brown University, told Business Insider.

That means people who were hospitalized around Christmas could have been infected around Thanksgiving. Experts don’t expect infections that occurred over the Christmas holiday to factor into hospitalization data for at least another week – perhaps more. 

“We’re all stealing ourselves for a really difficult next couple of months,” Ranney said in December.

The approval of coronavirus vaccines, she added, represents “a light at the end of the tunnel” – but the pandemic’s worst days may still be ahead.

The US could see another 210,000 coronavirus deaths from now until April, bringing the total death count to more than 560,000, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) predicts.

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Hospital staff sanitize their hands in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nevada on December 16, 2020.

Overflowing hospitals make it harder to treat patients

With the holidays over, US hospitals say they’ve never been more strained. 

Many hospitals are running low on ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, face shields, or gowns, forcing them to reuse these materials as many times as possible. In a December survey from the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, 73% of infection prevention experts said they had sacrificed their normal standards of care due to respirator shortages.

Without enough beds to treat patients, hospitals are also having to make tough calls about who to admit or prioritize for treatment.

“This is by far one of the most difficult things for me and my colleagues, sending a patient home when we would normally admit them,” Dr. Frank LoVecchio, an emergency room physician at Arizona’s Valleywise Health, told Fox 10 Phoenix. “But you reach that point when the needs exceed what is available.”

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A hospital worker rests against the wall while working at UMass Memorial Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts on November 11, 2020.

Some hospitals have had to transfer patients to alternate care sites, while others are forced to examine patients in outdoor tents or waiting rooms. Dr. Elaine Batchlor, CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Los Angeles, California, told CNN her hospital has started treating patients in the gift shop and chapel.

A tsunami of coronavirus patients also poses an increased risk of hospital staff getting sick themselves. When that happens, hospitals can become even more stretched. 

Josh Mugele, an emergency-room doctor at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, Georgia, told Business Insider he was “really nervous” about getting the virus in December. His hospital had reached maximum ICU capacity, having seen more coronavirus patients than at any other time during the pandemic. 

Mugele was diagnosed with COVID-19 last week. He suspects he got infected while working the night shift on Christmas.

“It’s frustrating now that somebody has to cover my shift,” he said. “The shifts these days are really, really hard. They’re just stressful. There’s a lot of sick people.”

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An emergency room doctor tested positive for COVID-19 nine days after getting vaccinated. That’s not a sign the vaccine didn’t work.

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A nurse receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Northwell Health’s Long Island Jewish Valley Stream hospital on December 21, 2020 in Valley Stream, New York.

  • Josh Mugele, an emergency room doctor in Georgia, tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday.
  • Mugele received his first dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine nine days prior.
  • Mugele’s infection isn’t a sign that the shot didn’t work.
  • The vaccine requires two shots to be fully effective. It can also take up to a few weeks for vaccinated individuals to develop immunity, so it’s important to continue to wear masks and social distance after getting the shots.
  • “This was just dumb luck,” Mugele said. “I happened to be exposed within a few days of getting the vaccine, but this still is the best tool we have for fighting the virus.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Josh Mugele worked the night shift on Christmas. Though he had been tending to coronavirus patients since the start of the pandemic, his Georgia hospital was stretched to capacity like never before. There was one small comfort, though: Mugele had received the first dose of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine on December 20.

“I had three shifts in a row right up to the vaccine date,” Mugele, an emergency room doctor at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, Georgia, told Business Insider. “I was just really nervous I was going to get exposed before that. I honestly felt really a sense of relief when, on the 20th, I actually was able to get the vaccine and I thought I’d kind of crossed the finish line.”

Then on Monday, he came down with a headache and cough. The following day, he tested positive for COVID-19.

“I was scared at first, but more than anything, I think I was angry,” Mugele said. “I’ve had maximum exposure, as much as any ER doc in the country, and I’ve been spared for 10 months and then to get it right after I got the vaccine is just stupid and frustrating.”

Pfizer’s vaccine is given as two injections 21 days apart

Mugele always knew there was a chance of getting sick after his first dose.

Pfizer’s vaccine is given as two injections 21 days apart. The two-dose regimen was found to be 95% effective at preventing COVID-19, but a single dose provided a lot less protection. That’s why it’s imperative for vaccine recipients to return for a second shot.

It’s also unknown whether the vaccine prevents infection altogether, and it can take up to a few weeks post-vaccination for the body to develop immunity in the form of antibodies against the virus.

“That first eight days is really critical,” Mugele said. “People still have to be absolutely isolated. They have to wear their mask, they have to wash their hands, they have to avoid going out before they get the benefit of the vaccine.”

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Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, California administers its first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on December 17, 2020.

‘This was just dumb luck’

Mugele said he still plans on getting his second dose on January 12, assuming he has been asymptomatic for about a week beforehand. He also stressed that his infection wasn’t a sign of anything wrong with the vaccine.

“This was just dumb luck,” he said. “I happened to be exposed within a few days of getting the vaccine, but this still is the best tool we have for fighting the virus.”

As an emergency room doctor, Mugele also had a higher risk of infection than many Americans, especially because his hospital is filling with coronavirus patients.

“Our hospital’s pretty much like every other hospital in the country,” he said. “We have higher volumes than we’ve ever had.”

The US vaccine rollout is going slowly

Average daily hospitalizations have tripled across the US over the last two months, reaching a peak of nearly 125,000 on Tuesday. Mugele said he feels sorry that another doctor will have to cover his shift during this critical time.

“The shifts these days are really, really hard,” he said. “We’re seeing people in non-ideal conditions, like in the hallway or the waiting room, so it’s a stressful, stressful work environment. Everybody is already stretched thin.”

While vaccines are still the quickest way to halt the pandemic, the US’s immunization rollout has been painfully slow compared to what federal officials had anticipated. Earlier this month, the Trump administration predicted 20 million Americans would get a coronavirus shot by year’s end. The US has shipped out around 14 million doses so far, but only about 2.6 million people have received their first injections, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday. 

“It’s really important that, until we have widespread vaccination rates in the entire country, even if you have both doses of vaccine, you still have to be careful,” Mugele. “You still have to wear your mask out in public and you still have to avoid large gatherings and you still have to wash your hands. We’re still in the thick of this thing.”

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As vaccine begins rolling out, US hits new record for hospitalizations and surpasses 300,000 deaths from COVID-19

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Nevada and Arizona are currently the worst hit states in the US, with each seeing more than 500 people per milion hospitalized with COVID-19.

  • A record 110,000 people are currently hospitalized with the coronavirus in the US, The Covid Tracking Project announced Monday.
  • The number is nearly double that seen in the two previous COVID-19 surges the US has seen thus far.
  • Over 300,000 Americans have now died from disease.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Nearly twice as many people in the United States were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Monday compared to the first surge of the the virus in April, with more than 300,000 Americans now dead from the disease.

According to The Covid Tracking Project, at least 110,549 people are currently in the hospital with the novel coronavirus. During the two previous big waves of infection, in April and July, less than 60,000 people were hospitalized.

Arizona and Nevada lead the nation in hospitalizations, with 505 people and 657 people per million, respectively, currently receiving medical care.

By contrast, Hawaii and Vermont are doing the best; neither state currently has more than 100 people per million in the hospital with the coronavirus.

The news comes amid another grim milestone: this week, the US surpassed 300,000 deaths from COVID-19, by far the highest recorded number in the world, per a count from by Johns Hopkins University. Brazil, the next closest country, has seen more than 181,000 deaths over the course of the pandemic.

By early next, as many as 362,000 Americans will be dead from the coronavirus, according to the latest forecasts analyzed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“In January, we will pass 400,000 deaths,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dead of public health at Brown University, said on Sunday. “Those deaths will come from infections that have already happened or will this week.”

“Vaccines will help,” he added. “But we can, must do more.”

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