New vaccinations are rebounding in US Covid-19 hot spots

More than 9,000 people a day in Louisiana are beginning vaccination - the highest rate since mid-April.
More than 9,000 people a day in Louisiana are beginning vaccination - the highest rate since mid-April.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Some of the most vaccine-resistant parts of the US are now leading the country in the number of people getting a first dose of vaccine, a Bloomberg analysis shows, as surging infections and rising hospitalizations push formerly reluctant Americans to protect themselves.

The increase in vaccinations is concentrated in the Southern and Central parts of the US, with the highest daily rate of shots happening in places like Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri - states that have had some of the lowest rates of vaccination in the eight months since vaccines became available.

Those places, along with hot spots including California and Florida, are also where a new wave of Covid cases is hitting hardest, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant, and where local health officials have been pulling out all the stops to try to catch up on vaccinations.

Louisiana has had one of the worst vaccination rates in the US. Only 42 per cent of people there have received one or more doses of a vaccine, fourth-from-last among states. It now also has one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks. Daily hospitalizations are near record levels, as are new cases.

But with that rise has come a new increase in the number of people starting vaccinations, said Joseph Kanter, Louisiana's state health officer.

"We've seen our daily new administrations double, and this week they're on pace to triple or quadruple," Kanter said in a phone interview. "Everybody knows someone who is sick right now. Those people who are not real anti-vaxxers but were just not real confident are saying, 'I'm not waiting a day longer.'"

More than 9,000 people a day in Louisiana are beginning vaccination, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data - the highest rate since mid-April. Arkansas's vaccinations are trending similarly, also at their highest average rates since mid-April, and Missouri's number of people starting vaccination is at the highest rate since late May.

While the laggard states are accelerating their work, most remain far behind places that saw strong early uptake of the shots and kept momentum. Vermont, for example, has given at least one dose to more than 75 per cent of its residents. Even at their current accelerated pace, it would take months for trailing states to catch up. A review of vaccination data nationally shows the same pattern. For months, the gap between the least- and most- vaccinated counties in the US had been growing, with rates continuing to climb in places that were already highly vaccinated and flatlining in less vaccinated places.

This month, however, that trend has changed. Bloomberg analyzed vaccination data for approximately 2,500 counties, and divided them into quintiles based on the rate of vaccination as of June 15. The 20 per cent of counties that were vaccinating the most slowly six weeks ago are now leading the country in the number of people starting vaccination each day, helping drive a national trend of more vaccinations. Some states aren't waiting for people to come in on their own volition.

California this week announced a requirement that state employees provide proof of vaccination or submit to a weekly testing protocol. The state has been grappling with rising numbers of new infections, and its vaccination rates are just above the national average. It had been operating on an honor system, by which state employees didn't have to provide proof of vaccination.

"This alarming increase in the case rates led us to decide that self-attestation was no longer sufficient," said Eriana Ortega, director of the California Department of Human Resources, which oversees 246,000 state employees. "We are one of the largest employers here in California and we are trying to show that if we can implement this, other employers can as well," Ortega said in a phone interview.

The federal government, as well as New York state and New York City have announced or are considering similar mandates, which would cover millions of workers. And on Thursday (July 29), tech giant Alphabet Inc said it would mandate vaccines for people returning to its offices, as well. Arkansas is another viral hot spot that's seeing a surge in vaccinations.

The number of first and second doses being administered in the state has reached levels not seen since May and has some of the highest rates of people starting vaccination in the country. With new cases in Arkansas doubling about every two weeks, fear of the virus is likely playing a role, said Mark Williams, dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The state is seeing more younger people get hospitalized, he said, a population that has been harder to reach with vaccines. "They can identify with the people who are getting infected and getting ill," Williams said.

While vaccination rates are rising in places where cases are surging, there are signs that there may be a ceiling on how many people will go and get a shot. The Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index released on July 20 found that among unvaccinated Americans, only a quarter said they would get a shot. A majority of that subgroup said that would be "not at all likely" to get a shot, no matter the effort made to reach them.

Kanter, the Louisiana official, said those people have been hard to convince. Many believe conspiracy theories or misinformation about the vaccines, he said.

"We do see some individuals who believe that come around to get vaccinated if and when a family member gets sick," he said. "It's difficult to get people in that population to come around, shy of that."