It most likely is just a matter of time before hospitals in North Carolina begin to see the number of COVID-19 patients increase again.
It has already begun in some states, with Missouri standing out as having the largest new surge in cases.
And it appears to be happening in North Carolina’s Bladen County, where the rate of new cases over the past two weeks has shot up to 241.4 per 100,000 people — a critical level of spread — and hospitalizations have jumped.
The main factor where the virus has surged is the percentage of people who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but events overseas show there is another reason to worry: the so-called Delta variant — or even another version now being referred to as Delta-plus.
The CDC reports that 53% of all Americans 12 and older are fully vaccinated, and another 10% have received at least one dose, but vaccination rates vary widely.
In Missouri, 38% of all residents are fully vaccinated, but the virus is surging the most in the more rural counties in the northern and southern parts of the state, where vaccination rates are far lower. In one county, only 13% of residents are fully vaccinated.
In North Carolina, 49% of those 12 and older are fully vaccinated, but rural counties lag, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services says. Orange County, home of Chapel Hill, leads the state with 62% of its population fully vaccinated, but three counties away due south only 20% of Hoke County is fully vaccinated.
Bladen County, southeast of Hoke, has a vaccination rate of just 33%. In the past three weeks, nearly 60% of new cases there have been associated with a COVID-19 cluster in the Bladenboro community. More than 64% of the cases are in people age 49 and younger.
Here in the Triad, Guilford County has the highest vaccination rate, with 45% fully vaccinated, but Randolph County lags at 30%.
Low vaccination rates are a large enough concern with the Alpha variant, which originated in the United Kingdom and accounts for more than 70% of the cases in North Carolina, but it’s certain that more infectious variants eventually will overtake it.
The Delta variant of COVID-19 is more contagious and appears to be much more likely to create severe illness than the virus strains that previously have circulated. This variant has been found in North Carolina but accounted for just 0.7% of new cases in the state as of early last week, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But Delta accounts for the majority of new cases in England now, and it’s behind a recent surge of cases in Israel, where 57% of the population is fully vaccinated. Israeli health officials decided Friday to reinstate a requirement for people to wear face masks because of the surge.
But as contagious and serious as the Delta variant is, the existing COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be effective against it and all other strains of the virus so far. People who are vaccinated may still become infected, but they are extremely unlikely to suffer serious illness.
An Associated Press analysis of available government data from May shows that infections in fully vaccinated people accounted for fewer than 1,200 of more than 853,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations. That’s about 0.1%.
And only about 150 of the more than 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May were of fully vaccinated people — about 0.8%.
And yes, that was 18,000 deaths. That’s far fewer than the number who died in January, but it’s still as many deaths in one month as the flu has caused in a year.
It should serve as a reminder that the pandemic isn’t over.