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Covid-19 risk for some unvaccinated people is higher than it’s ever been, expert says

For unvaccinated people in certain parts of the country, the risk of Covid-19 is higher than ever before, said Dr. Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.

“If you are unvaccinated, the risk is incredibly high — and maybe in some areas higher than it’s ever been because there are not mask mandates, people are enjoying this wonderful return of summer and are a little more carefree and lackadaisical and making it more possible that you could be exposed,” Spencer told CNN on Friday.

As the virus circulates at high levels in certain areas, vaccinated people should “continue to be smart,” but are very unlikely to get sick, be hospitalized or die of Covid-19, Spencer said.

How the pandemic affects vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals differently is being demonstrated in hospitals nationwide, as local health officials report an overwhelming majority of hospitalizations from Covid-19 among those who have not yet been fully vaccinated.

Even in areas with higher rates of vaccination, officials are beginning to reinstitute safety protocols such as mask mandates to try and curb the spread. Los Angeles County reinstated its indoor mask mandate this week for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. And health authorities in the San Francisco Bay Area announced Friday they are recommending everyone wear masks indoors.

With growing concern, local authorities can decide to go the “extra mile” to contain Covid-19 spread with mask guidelines, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“Under certain circumstances, where you have a high level of dynamics of infection — be that in Los Angeles or wherever — the local authorities do have the discretion of going that extra mile or going the extra step it takes to make sure that the spread of this virus is really contained, and they do that by saying that everyone should wear a mask,” Fauci said Friday in an NBC Nightly News interview.

Roughly 48.4% of the US population is fully vaccinated, according to the latest data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pace of vaccinations over a seven-day average has declined 13% from the prior week.

Among those states that have fully vaccinated less than half its residents, the average Covid-19 case rate was 11 new cases per 100,000 people last week, compared to 4 per 100,000 among states that have fully vaccinated more than half its residents, according to a CNN analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.

‘I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it’

Local officials are continuing to sound the alarm about the increase in cases, particularly among those unvaccinated. Twenty states have fully vaccinated more than half of their residents, according to the CDC, yet in states with fewer vaccinations, health care facility resources are being stretched.

Katie Towns, acting director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department in Missouri told CNN’s Ana Cabrera on Friday that the department is requesting an alternative care site and staff from the state to address the growing number of Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“It’s at a level that we’ve not seen before,” Towns said, noting that area hospitals reached capacity this week.

“Most striking is the demographic and age,” she said of those sick. “The illness has really shifted from being an older population … to being ages 20, 30, 40 years old in the hospital and needing ICU care and oxygen.”

Towns said “almost all” patients in the hospital are unvaccinated, and hospitals and health officials are projecting an increase in numbers following the Fourth of July holiday.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it,” Towns said when asked where the county stands with fighting the pandemic.

In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards said on Friday that since February, 97% of cases and deaths related to Covid-19 are of those who are not fully vaccinated.

People line up for the vaccine at Mother's Brewing Company in Springfield, Missouri, on June 22, 2021.

Unvaccinated health care workers are causing staffing issues

While health officials have preached the need for Americans to get vaccines, one industry in particular is also facing a growing crisis with unvaccinated workers: health care.

In one example, the University of Florida Health Jacksonville hospital is going through staffing issues due to unvaccinated staff and is seeing an uptick in hospitalizations due to Covid-19, according to Chad Neilsen, director of infection prevention.

The hospital has seen a 50% increase in Covid-19 admissions in the last two weeks and 10% more Covid-19 patients per day, Neilsen told CNN. The average age of Covid-19 inpatient admission is 54, the lowest UF Health Jacksonville has ever seen.

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Staffing at the hospital is becoming a big issue, Neilsen noted, as unvaccinated staff are being exposed to and getting Covid-19 in addition to undergoing burnout. There is only around 52% vaccine compliance among employees at UF Health Jacksonville, according to the director.

“Unvaccinated employees seem to be taking longer to recover and longer to return back to work,” Neilsen said, as the hospital is considering pausing elective surgeries.

Lowered rates of vaccination among health care workers are not limited to just hospitals. Only 56% of health care workers in nursing homes are fully vaccinated, according to a new analysis from AARP. The organization says only one in five nursing homes hit the industry target of having 75% of staff fully vaccinated.

At a national level, many more residents than staff are fully vaccinated, according to the analysis. While the number of deaths at nursing homes dropped significantly after the vaccine rollout, AARP attributed a third of all US Covid-19 deaths during the pandemic to residents and staff at nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

First case of Covid-19 reported at Tokyo Olympic village

“This national tragedy cannot be repeated,” Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s executive vice president and chief advocacy & engagement officer said in an organization news release. “With cases once again rising across the country and considering the highly contagious Delta variant, every effort must be made to protect vulnerable nursing home residents.”

The Association of American Medical Colleges on Friday urged all its member institutions to require Covid-19 vaccinations for employees to protect patients and health care personnel, as the Delta variant continues to circulate.

“Across the country, we are seeing increasing evidence that those currently unvaccinated continue to be at high risk of acquiring Covid-19 and are the overwhelming majority of new hospitalizations,” AAMC President Dr. David Sorkin said Friday, stating that variants are exacerbating the pandemic and that vaccinations are needed to mitigate the spread.

“Nowhere is this more important than in hospitals, where health care personnel — who have been heroic during this pandemic — are caring for patients with a wide variety of health challenges under the assumption that the health care professionals treating them are not at risk of acquiring or transmitting Covid-19,” Sorkin said.

“Yet, we have tragically lost some health care personnel to the coronavirus, while others have taken the infection home to their families. Vaccinating health care personnel at our member institutions saves lives.”

CNN’s Lauren Mascarenhas, Jen Christensen, Jacqueline Howard, Laine Mackey, Deidre McPhillips, Leyla Santiago and Sara Weisfeldt contributed to this report.

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