Jul 26, 2021 - Health

Why vaccinated America can't turn its back on unvaccinated America

Illustration of a woman and a man lifting a covid vaccine bottle.
lllustration: Trent Joaquin/Axios

Getting more Americans vaccinated should be important to the majority of American adults who have already gotten the shot, experts say.

Why it matters: Beyond the philosophical considerations, public health experts say there are direct impacts — including the risk of breakthrough cases, new variants and economic pullbacks.

"The key thing that keeps getting lost is that this matters to the vaccinated," said Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University.

The first concern is for the immediate health of the unvaccinated, as well as the pressure that caring for them puts on local health systems.

  • "Hospitalization and deaths in the U.S. are going back up. We can see the actual impact of it right now," said Jen Kates, KFF's senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy.
  • "We're seeing a lot of nurses with compassion fatigue, and I am really scared how that is going to play out because a lot of the cases we're seeing are in non-vaccinated individuals," one western Arkansas nurse told CNN.

Breakthrough infections — infections in vaccinated people — are still rare, and few are life-threatening, but COVID-19's continued circulation makes them more probable, and it will also help give rise to new variants.

  • The more people COVID can infect, the higher the possibility of new variants that are more transmissible, deadly or even able to evade the defense of our vaccines.

Zoom in: Vermont is a successful U.S. model, said Eric Topol, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.

  • It has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, and hospitalizations have been going down, even amid the nationwide surge caused by the Delta variant.
  • "Other people, those without prior-COVID or who aren't vaccinated, are protected because COVID can't find them," Topol said.
  • But in the U.S. more broadly, he said, the opposite model is happening. "Instead of how it was supposed to work, [the unvaccinated] are infecting the vaccinated because it's such a highly transmissible version of the virus," Topol said.

What's next: With millions of Americans, including children, still unvaccinated amid the spread of Delta, some experts fear that the rebound in COVID cases could slow economic growth.

  • In a recent note to investors, Bank of America economists Stephen Juneau and Anna Zhou said the Delta variant is expected to lead to a shift in consumer behavior such as a “sharp pullback in services spending,” Insider reported.
  • They pointed to Michigan, which did not tighten its restrictions during a surge in COVID cases earlier this year, but still saw consumer spending decrease as fewer consumers dined out.

The bottom line: Springfield, Missouri-based CoxHealth had less than 20 patients hospitalized for COVID in mid-May, but had 160 patients last week.

  • "It just skyrocketed over the past few weeks, and projections show it's probably going to get worse," said Kaitlyn McConnell, a spokesperson for CoxHealth.
  • "I don't think there's ever a point where we're going to stop trying to educate people" about getting the vaccine, she said, "even if sometimes you wonder if you'll change minds."
Go deeper