President Joe Biden warned Friday that Delta, a coronavirus variant first discovered in India, poses an increased threat to unvaccinated Americans.
“It is a variant that is more easily transmissible, potentially deadlier, and particularly dangerous for young people,” Biden said at a White House news conference.
His remarks came just hours after Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told “Good Morning America” that Delta would likely become the dominant strain in the US in the coming months. (Some experts have even suggested that might even happen within weeks.)
Delta represents just 10% of US COVID-19 cases so far, but it already makes up around 90% of cases in the UK, according to a study from Imperial College London that’s still awaiting peer review. The researchers also found that COVID-19 cases in the UK are doubling every 11 days, most likely as a result of the fast-spreading variant.
Research from Public Health England suggests that Delta is associated with a 60% increased risk of household coronavirus transmission compared to Alpha – the variant discovered in the UK. Alpha is already around 50% more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain, according to the CDC.
Young people may be particularly susceptible to a Delta infection for two reasons: They’re more likely to be socially active and less likely to be vaccinated than older adults.
In the US, fewer adults under 50 have gotten vaccinated than adults ages 50 and older. The Imperial College London researchers also found that coronavirus infections in the UK are two-and-a-half times more prevalent among people ages 5 to 49 than among those ages 50 and older. Most young people who recently got infected were unvaccinated, according to the study.
Experts increasingly worry that young people will be less protected against severe disease caused by a Delta infection: Researchers in Scotland found that getting infected with Delta doubles the risk of hospital admission relative to Alpha.
Emerging research also suggests that a single vaccine dose doesn’t hold up as well against Delta compared to other coronavirus strains. Recent Public Health England analyses found that two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine were 88% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 from Delta cases, while a single shot was just 33% effective by the same standard.
“Please, please if you have one shot, get the second shot as soon as you can,” Biden said on Friday.
So far, less than 45% of Americans are fully vaccinated, while 53% have received at least one dose. US vaccination rates have also fallen dramatically in the last two months, from a weekly average of nearly 3.4 million doses per day in mid-April to fewer than 780,000 doses per day on Thursday.
The more vaccination rates continue to drop, the more opportunities there are for Delta to spread – and therefore keep replicating and mutating.
“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, recently told Insider.
Still, Biden said the US likely wouldn’t return to lockdowns because so many people have been vaccinated already.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene on Monday evening publicly apologized for her previous comparisons of COVID-19 mask requirements and vaccination efforts to the horrors suffered by Jews in Nazi Germany.
The Georgia Republican, known for her controversial statements, took a markedly different tone during a solo news conference, starting off by saying: “I always want to remind everyone – I’m very much a normal person.”
“One of the best lessons that my father always taught me was, when you make a mistake, you should own it. And I have made a mistake and it’s really bothered me for a couple of weeks now, and so I definitely want to own it,” she said.
Greene told reporters that she visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, earlier in the day and wanted to make it clear that “there is no comparison to the Holocaust.”
“There are words that I have said, remarks that I’ve made, that I know are offensive. And for that I want to apologize,” she said.
Greene attacked Speaker Nancy Pelosi for keeping the House mask mandate in place although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted mask-wearing guidelines indoors for fully vaccinated individuals. Pelosi said that she was following guidance from the Capitol attending physician as vaccination rates in Congress, especially among Republicans, was unknown.
During an interview on a conservative podcast on May 20, Greene said: “You know, we can look back in a time in history where people were told to wear a gold star and they were definitely treated like second-class citizens, so much so that they were put in trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany. And this is exactly the type of abuse that Nancy Pelosi is talking about.”
She also tweeted at the time that “vaccinated employees get a vaccination logo just like the Nazi’s forced Jewish people to wear a gold star.”
The “gold star” reference, which historians more commonly refer to as a yellow star, was an identifier that Nazi Germany forced Jews to wear.
Several House Democrats swiftly condemned Greene’s language, followed by House Republican leadership. GOP leader Kevin McCarthy called her statements “wrong” and “appalling.”
Greene did not express any regret over her comments at the time, and instead doubled down on them in a series of tweets in which she described Democrats as “reminiscent of the great tyrants of history.”
The UK unemployment rate fell to an eight-month low of 4.7% in the three months to April, official figures showed on Tuesday, as the reopening of key parts of the economy boosted the jobs market.
April’s figure was below the 5% unemployment rate seen in the previous quarter and was the lowest figure since the three months to August 2020.
Separate data from the ONS showed that the number of employees on payrolls surged in May by 197,000, the most on record.
The labor market recovery was seen in pay packets too, with Britons’ average total pay for the three months to April jumping 5.6%. However, economists said the figure was flattered by last year’s low base.
“Our plan for jobs is working,” said UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak. “The latest forecasts for unemployment are around half of what was previously feared, and the number of employees on payroll is at its highest level since April last year.”
Britain’s rollout of coronavirus vaccines has been one of the quickest in the world. It allowed the government to start easing restrictions meaningfully in April, when non-essential stores reopened, and pubs and restaurants began to serve people outside.
The UK government’s job-retention scheme – widely known as “furlough” – has also kept a lid on unemployment by paying the wages of workers who might otherwise have lost their jobs.
The Bank of England said in May it expects UK unemployment to pick up again slightly and peak just below 5.5% in the third quarter of 2021, when the furlough scheme winds down further.
Yet the reopening of Britain’s economy has not been completely smooth. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday evening said his government would have to delay the next stage, due to a surge in cases of the Delta coronavirus variant, which was first found in India.
The pound edged up after the data, to trade 0.1% higher against the dollar at $1.412, close to session highs.
Things are finally beginning to return to normal for fully vaccinated people. Those that have received their shot(s) are seeing friends again, meeting up in bars and restaurants, and engaging in activities they’ve been putting off for more than a year. Some states are even reaching upwards of 70% of their population receiving at least one dose of the vaccine. Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all on the decline and the US seems to finally be rounding the curve. With all this good news, it can be tempting to think that the pandemic is over.
Unfortunately, this is far from the case.
Globally, thousands of people continue to die from the virus each day and many countries remain in lockdown, unable to vaccinate their populations due to a lack of vaccine supply. Here at home, practically everybody who is being hospitalized and dying of the virus — a number that is still in the hundreds per day – have not been vaccinated yet. Vaccination rates are also not consistent throughout the country, while states like Vermont have vaccinated over 70% of their population with at least one dose, states in the deep south like Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana have vaccinated less than 40% of their population. In fact, the New York Times predicts it will take Alabama and Mississippi over a year to reach 70% of adults with one dose. At the county level, there are still many counties that have less than 30% of their residents fully vaccinated, compared to over 50%nationally.
Disparities persist as well – as of late May, only 22% of Black people in the US have received at least one dose, and vaccination rates for Black people are lower than that of white people in every state. According to the CDC, vaccine coverage tends to be lower in counties that had lower socioeconomic status and a higher number of households that had single parents, children, and disabled people.
The government needs to step in with resources and support to get more people vaccinated.
So why should you, as a vaccinated person, care?
While we may be able to return to our lives safely, pandemics do not end through individual actions alone. None of this occurs in a vacuum and until we get to a point where few people are dying of COVID, it will continue to be everybody’s problem. For one thing, this mixed vaccination coverage will create surges and hotspots in communities where vaccine coverage is low. This is especially a concern in the south as people head indoors because of rising temperatures. In these places, social distancing and masking should be reinstated. Unfortunately, now that the honor system for wearing a mask is all but gone, this seems unlikely.
Then, there are the variants. More transmissible and deadlier variants are spreading throughout the world. Britain and other countries are dealing with the Delta variant, whereas Brazil is struggling with the Gamma variant. In the UK, despite having a higher percentage of people with one shot, the Delta variant is now the dominant strain and threatens to delay reopening. The Delta variant will soon spread throughout the US, making the surges we see amongst unvaccinated people more severe. While there is thankfully no case of a variant completely rendering a vaccine useless, there are instances of it reducing a vaccine’s effectiveness. The vaccines are doing amazingly well against the novel coronavirus, but we still cannot remain complacent against the risk of those mutations.
So, why aren’t people getting vaccinated? Some people are worried about side effects and can’t take time off work, others think the vaccine isn’t free, and some are undocumented and are worried about immigration enforcement. Meanwhile, a recent poll taken by YouGov shows a third of Black and Hispanic respondents and more than a third of those who make less than $50k have not been encouraged to get the vaccine at all.
It’s time for the government to go all out
All levels of government in the US have been united in their message that it is up to individuals to get vaccinated if they want to. The federal and some state governments have set up incentives from free beer and sports tickets to lotteries. But these programs assume the problem is merely hesitancy and don’t actually address the reasons why people are hesitant. What we need is to bring the vaccines to the people.
Imagine a vaccination campaign where the federal government uses its resources to go door-to-door with multilingual information about vaccines. People can ask questions, get registered to get vaccinated, and request transportation or a home visit, which also allows the government to do follow up visits. In addition to this, the government could ensure “vaccine sick leave” and allow workers to take paid time off work to get vaccinated and recover.
The government already has the resources – FEMA, the Postal Service, and the Census Bureau – to reach as many communities as possible. We know from the census that when a proactive effort is made to reach people, participation goes up – this is what happened in New York City, which saw a historic response rate in a year where other places struggled. Already, some communities are utilizing the door-to-door approach, but we still need a coordinated effort led by the federal government to enact this on a national scale.
All of this creates an atmosphere of understandable fear and discomfort; which will create strains amongst some social circles as some of us are ready to go out and others are not. For disabled and immunocompromised people especially, these fears are not irrational. We won’t exit this pandemic as individuals. Either we do it together, or we remain stuck in it.
Fast-food chain Taco Bell is the latest company to get in on the huge vaccination drive taking place across the state of California. It is offering free tacos to customers who have received at least one dose of their COVID-19 vaccines from Tuesday.
Customers who show their vaccination card at participating California Taco Bell restaurants will be eligible for a Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos taco at no cost, the company said in a press release.
The company announced its offer as part of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Vax for the Win incentive program.
Mark King, CEO of Taco Bell Corp, said in the press release: “It’s been a tough year, and we are all ready to put COVID-19 behind us.”
“We are thrilled to do our part and give back to our home state with something everyone knows and loves to celebrate those who have made the decision to get vaccinated,” he added.
At least 70% of Californian adults have received at least one dose of immunization, according to Newsom. However, there is still a large population of young people who need to get vaccinated or receive their second dose.
The brand hopes the effort will increase vaccinations in these specific groups to help reopen the state in a safe manner.
The UK economy grew 2.3% in April, figures showed on Friday, as restrictions were relaxed and pubs and restaurants in England were allowed to serve people outside.
April’s 2.3% growth in gross domestic product was the strongest since July 2020, when the economy rebounded from the first coronavirus lockdowns, although it was marginally below economists’ estimates of a 2.5% expansion.
The service sector grew a strong 3.4% in April, aided by the easing of lockdowns in the middle of the month, the Office for National Statistics said.
The pound slipped slightly after the figures were released, but was roughly flat against the dollar at $1.418.
“Strong growth in retail spending, increased car and caravan purchases, schools being open for the full month and the beginning of the reopening of hospitality all boosted the economy in April,” Jonathan Athow, deputy national statistician at the ONS, said.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the UK GDP figures were “a promising sign that our economy is beginning to recover.”
Despite the strong growth, UK GDP remained 3.7% smaller than in February 2020, before COVID-19 struck, according to the ONS.
Another factor boosting the UK economy has been the rapid national rollout of coronavirus vaccines. Almost 60% of Britons have had their first dose, according to Our World In Data.
The vaccine drive has so far allowed the government to stick to its timetable for reopening the economy. However, the rise in the delta variant, first discovered in India, could postpone the lifting of all restrictions, which was due on June 21.
The government lifted more restrictions in England in May, allowing people to go inside pubs and restaurants, and reopening cinemas.
“Most indicators suggest that the recovery progressed at a solid pace in May, especially after more restrictions on services businesses were lifted on May 17,” Samuel Tombs, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said.
“For instance, the composite [purchasing managers’ index] increased in May to its highest level since records began in 1998, while data from the British Retail Consortium suggest that retail sales volumes rose a little further, despite already exceeding their 2019 average by 10% in April.”
The vaccines are here, businesses are reopening, and now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks in public places. All of this messaging shouts: The pandemic is over! It’s safe for vaccinated people! Let’s move on with our lives without precaution!
But all this premature optimism and jubilation is leaving out one important group: immunocompromised individuals who suffer weakened immune systems and are among the most vulnerable to serious illness and death from COVID-19.
Worse yet, emerging research indicates that COVID-19 vaccines may not be as effective for immunosuppressed patients – for many people in this group, the vaccines do not produce much, if any, immune response against the virus – leaving many of them just as vulnerable as if they hadn’t been vaccinated.
This is an important finding in part because the group is not insignificant in numbers: About 10 million people in the US are immunocompromised, typically because of organ transplants or illnesses like cancer and autoimmune diseases, as well as the immune-suppressing medications many use to help treat these conditions.
I’m one of them – I have two autoimmune diseases in which my body attacks healthy tissue and cartilage, and more broadly wreaks havoc on my system. To help treat these illnesses, I take immune-suppressing drugs that in turn make me even more vulnerable and prone to long-lasting viruses, infections, and other illnesses.
Like many others in my shoes, I’ve already felt left behind in many respects over the past year. Since last March, I’ve done my due diligence and followed all the recommendations, rules, and guidelines, including forgoing travel, visiting restaurants, and visits from family and friends – even as those around me gave up one precaution after another, lured by vacations, indoor holiday gatherings, and crowded bars and restaurants.
But the latest guidance from the CDC allowing vaccinated people to shed their masks in indoor, public places – and worse yet, essentially allowing unvaccinated people to remove masks in public as well since businesses typically do not require proof of inoculation – has made individuals like me feel even more left behind, anxious, and forgotten. I’m vaccinated, but it’s not clear what kind of protection that provides for me. (Immunocompromised individuals were excluded from the vaccine trials, but a new study is now underway from the National Institutes of Health).
The things I’ve been looking forward to doing once I was vaccinated now seem far out of reach, knowing the extra precaution of masks is no longer required. Yes, I can and will wear one, but being around scores of maskless people is a risk too many immunocompromised people can’t take. After a year of “we’re all in this together” and “let’s keep each other safe,” people are now rushing to take off their masks without thinking of those who still need to be protected. It’s not as simple as vaccinated or unvaccinated – there’s a murky middle camp of chronically ill patients who are inoculated, but who simply don’t have the normal defenses that allow the vaccines to work.
President Biden said recently that the new mask guidance means the unvaccinated “will end up paying the price,” but he’s wrong – he’s leaving out the vulnerable immunocompromised community. It’s a real punch in the gut for these people after an especially challenging and frightening year.
How to keep immunocompromised people safe
Despite these failings, there are steps that health officials, government, and businesses can take to make me and the 10 million others like me feel more safe and seen in this phase of the pandemic.
First of all, both public health officials and businesses should not rush to take away every precaution. Although this seems simple enough, it’s worth saying. Don’t take away every precaution and health and safety protocol that makes us feel ever-so-slightly more safe. If people can go maskless, don’t take away precautions like capacity limits and alternate options like virtual events and curbside pickup until vaccination rates are significantly higher and research has been conducted on vaccine efficacy for immunocompromised individuals.
For companies that want to return workers to the office – and plan to forgo mask mandates – allow your immunocompromised workers to continue to work from home.
Another suggestion is for the government to consider a widespread vaccination passport policy. I know, I know: No one can agreeon this. But relying on the honor system to keep public spaces safe is not going to cut it. Chronically ill people, who for years have gotten extremely ill from being around sick people, no longer trust others to keep us healthy – especially during a pandemic.
Remember at the beginning of the pandemic when there were special hours at stores for elderly and immunocompromised people (because at one point, we mattered)? I’d love to see this return for grocery stores and other businesses. For places that are following the updated CDC guidance and allowing people to go maskless, offering a mask-mandated hour for chronically ill and immunocompromised individuals – or just anyone who feels safer wearing a mask – will help keep us safe.
Certain types of businesses that make appointments in advance – hair salons or financial institutions, for instance – should make it a policy to ask customers their mask preference during the booking process.
The CDC should update health guidance to inform the public about immunocompromised risks and how people can help. When the CDC released its new mask guidance, it included a line addressed to immunocompromised people, telling them they are still vulnerable and to “be aware of the potential for reduced immune responses to the vaccine, as well as the need to continue following current guidance to protect themselves against COVID-19” – um, thanks?. But besides the “you’re on your own!” message, it did not inform the public about what risks they pose to this vulnerable group of people or what they can do to help. This needs to be rectified.
Most importantly, I urge the CDC and health officials to share information about the continued risks for vaccinated immunocompromised people to the general public, so people are aware of this underreported issue and understand that they can help keep this group safe by continuing to wear masks (even though they are not required to). I would also urge the CDC to update their mask guidance to tell the public that those who continue to wear masks, especially in public places or in circumstances where they might be in contact with an immunocompromised person, will help protect this vulnerable population.
It may be too late to reverse the mask guidance, but it’s not too late to do the right thing to help keep millions of people like me safe. Our lives might actually depend on it.
Christopher Sanford was eager to hop on a plane after getting vaccinated in January. Until that point, he had only flown once in the pandemic – to visit his mother in Texas.
“The whole world has cabin fever, and everybody wants to travel now, myself included,” Sanford, an associate professor of global health at the University of Washington, told Insider.
So three weeks ago, Sanford and his wife headed to Turkey, alongside a multitude of travelers embarking on their first flights in more than a year.
In the last two months, the average number of daily passengers recorded by the US Transportation Security Administration has risen 30%, from around 1.2 million in March to 1.6 million in May. Booking Holdings, a travel company that owns search engines like Priceline and Kayak, reported that its airline tickets sales jumped 49% during the first three months of 2021.
This uptick came as several countries reopened their borders to tourists: Iceland and Croatia have lifted quarantine requirements for US travelers, for example, as long as visitors show proof of vaccination. The European Union, meanwhile, expects to allow fully vaccinated Americans to visit this summer.
But Sanford said many of his patients still question whether traveling is safe – particularly as airports get crowded.
“I’m very heartened that things are slowly lurching back toward normal, but there’s a tremendous amount of fear, even after people have been vaccinated,” he said.
He offered a few tips for staying safe while flying, even if you’re vaccinated.
Flying was fairly low-risk even before vaccines
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people delay all travel until they’re fully vaccinated.
But scientists haven’t documented many cases of coronavirus transmission on flights, most likely for two reasons: Airplanes have strict mask requirements and solid air-filtration systems.
Air generally comes in through vents above your seat, then exits an aircraft through floor-level vents nearby, meaning it doesn’t circulate throughout the entire cabin. It’s also filtered through high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filters, which can remove coronavirus aerosols (tiny airborne particles produced when people talk or exhale).
“If somebody is right next to you and they have COVID and they take their mask down, that elevates your risk,” Sanford said. “But if they’re several rows back, even if they don’t wear a mask and they have COVID, probably their exhaled air is going to go through a filter before you breathe it in and the risk then would be very low.”
A November study found that the rate of in-flight coronavirus transmission was just 1 case per 27 million travelers. By comparison, the rate of fatal car crashes in the US is around 12 deaths per 100,000 people.
Keep your mask on as much as possible
Aside from getting vaccinated, masks are still our strongest defense against transmission on planes, Sanford said.
A September review found no secondary COVID-19 cases on five Emirates flights with up to 2,000 passengers in total. That’s despite the fact that 58 passengers on the flights had tested positive for the coronavirus. The researchers attributed the lack of transmission to the airline’s strict masking protocol.
Put simply, “the more you wear a mask, the better – the less, the worse,” Sanford said.
Book a nonstop flight
The riskiest parts of traveling, Sanford said, are the steps leading up to a flight: cramming into buses that take you to a terminal or mixing with crowds as you wait to board. He recommended asking a friend to drive you to the airport, then finding a relatively isolated location to post up at your terminal.
If possible, he added, opt for a nonstop flight.
“The more stops, the more people, the more airports, the more mixing,” Sanford said.
Each of these elements increases your risk of infection – even if that risk is slim.
For short flights, eat before you arrive
US airlines and airports still require masks until at least September 13. But travelers can take off their masks while eating or drinking. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should, though.
Sanford recommended keeping your mask on for the entire duration of a short flight, which would require eating before you arrive at the airport. For longer flights, like Sanford’s recent 13-hour trip from San Francisco to Istanbul, you’ll probably need to eat and drink, though.
“If you’re doing a seven-hour flight, it’s not good not to drink water for seven hours,” Sanford said.
No need to put your mask on between bites, he added.
Seat selection doesn’t matter much
Research indicates that blocking off middle seats on planes can lower the risk of transmission on board.
An October preprint, which has yet to be peer reviewed, found that the chance of a passenger in coach contracting COVID-19 on a two-hour domestic flight was 1 in 3,900 if all seats were occupied. But when middles seats were kept empty, that risk went down to 1 in 6,400.
As of May, however, US airlines are no longer blocking off middle seats.
As far as other seating choices go, Sanford said there isn’t much data to suggest that window is better than aisle or vice versa. The research so far is mixed: One December study found that the coronavirus’ secondary attack rate on a domestic flight in Australia was greater among passengers in window seats than in aisle or middle seats. But other studies have found that people in aisle seats have more contact with other travelers during flights, which can increase their risk of infection.
“Things like seat selection have such a negligible, minimal effect on the ultimate risk,” Sanford said.
Splurging on a first-class ticket won’t reduce your risk
Although seats in first class are spaced farther apart, Sanford said that probably won’t cut your risk of infection.
“I don’t think it’s a huge difference and I would not spring for the money,” he said.
Indeed, a study last year documented an instance of coronavirus transmission in business class. A 27-year-old woman passed the virus to 12 other business-class passengers during a 10-hour commercial flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. The people at highest risk of infection were those less than two seats away from the woman.
Just two passengers in economy class were infected.
Don’t travel to a place where the hospital system is overwhelmed
The CDC advises US residents to avoid travel to 140 counties, including those in the European Union. But the agency has suggested that it might be safe for fully vaccinated Americans to travel internationally – with the caveat that they may be at increased risk for getting and spreading variants.
Sanford equated the CDC’s message to “a tepid thumbs down” for international travel. The key concern about traveling abroad, he added, is whether you’d be able to receive proper medical care at your destination.
“It’d be really bad for you and all concerned if you got COVID in India currently, with the healthcare system there full of patients already,” he said.
Still, Sanford added, there’s no need to worry about whether the airport you’re flying into has lots of international travelers.
“I don’t tell people to avoid international hubs,” he said. “I do tell them to avoid crowds.”