WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned on Thursday (July 22) that the United States was "not out of the woods yet" on the pandemic and was once again at a "pivotal point" as the highly infectious Delta variant ripped through unvaccinated communities.
Just weeks after President Joe Biden threw a Fourth of July party on the South Lawn of the White House to declare independence from the virus, the director, Dr Rochelle Walensky, called the now dominant variant "one of the most infectious respiratory viruses" known to scientists.
The renewed sense of urgency inside the administration was aimed at tens of millions of people who have not yet been vaccinated and therefore are most likely to be infected and become sick.
Her grim message came at a time of growing anxiety and confusion, especially among parents of young children who are still not eligible to take the shot. And it underscored how quickly the pandemic's latest surge had unsettled Americans who had begun to believe the worst was over, sending politicians and public health officials scrambling to recalibrate their responses.
"This is like the moment in the horror movie when you think the horror is over and the credits are about to roll," said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md. "And it all starts back up again."
The choice by millions to reject the vaccine has had the consequences that public health officials predicted: The number of new cases in the country has shot up almost 250 per cent since the beginning of the month, with an average of more than 41,000 infections being diagnosed each day during the past week - up from 12,000.
The disease caused by the virus is claiming about 250 lives each day - far fewer than during the peaks last year, but still 42 per cent higher than two weeks ago. More than 97 per cent of those hospitalised are unvaccinated, Dr Walensky said last week.
The public health crisis is particularly acute in parts of the country where vaccination rates are the lowest. In Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, the number of daily new cases is up more than 200 per cent in the past two weeks, driving new hospitalisations and deaths almost exclusively among the unvaccinated. Intensive care units are filled or filling in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.
The turnabout is forcing both political parties in Washington to grapple - so far in halting and tentative ways - with questions about what tone they should strike, what guidance they should provide and what changes they need to make to confront the latest iteration of the worst public health crisis in a century.
The White House announced new grants on Thursday to local health offices for vaccines and increased testing in rural communities, even as administration officials said they were "making continued progress in our fight against the virus" and insisted that there was no need to reconsider their basic strategy. Although reports of so-called breakthrough infections in vaccinated people are growing, they remain relatively uncommon, and those that cause severe illness, hospitalisation or death are especially so.
On Capitol Hill on Thursday, House Republican leaders and elected doctors only grudgingly signalled their support for vaccinations, though even that support was mixed.
"If you are at risk, you should be getting this vaccine," said Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, a physician, adding, "We urge all Americans to talk to their doctors about the risks of Covid-19, talk to their doctors about the benefits of getting vaccinated and then come to a decision."
Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C., said, "This vaccine is a medicine, and just like with any other medicines, there are side effects and this is a personal decision."
Their news conference was advertised as an attempt to "discuss the need for individuals to get vaccinated." But it was dominated by efforts to promote an unproven theory that the Chinese released a virulent, human-made virus on the world and accusations that Democrats covered it up.
The vaccines are working to keep those who have received shots out of serious danger, but charts tracking the pandemic that had been declining for months - heralded by Biden as proof that his approach was working - are heading sharply upward.
Amid the concern, one thing is clear: The variant has again upended hopes for an end to the pandemic and raised a new fear on the horizon - that a much-anticipated return to work and school could be disrupted after most of the country has spent nearly 18 months in stay-at-home seclusion.
"I am worried about the fall," said Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., a registered nurse. "August is going to be rough. Back to school is going to be rough. We're going to see more illness and more death." Andy Slavitt, a public health expert who recently left the Biden White House's coronavirus response team, said the administration would not consider mandating vaccinations on the military or federal workforce until the Food and Drug Administration gave permanent approval to the coronavirus vaccines, which are now under emergency use authorisation.
But, he said, final approval to the Pfizer vaccine is "within weeks to a short number of months." Once that happens, he said, "everything should be on the table, and I can tell you that's the attitude inside the White House."