As the U.S. reports record COVID-19 cases nationwide, public health experts are concerned that Southeastern states could see some of the worst impacts of the surge due to their low vaccination rates.
Current hospitalization and death figures are lower than past surges in many parts of the country, but states with lower vaccination rates are particularly likely to see more Covid patients in the coming weeks.
This includes Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi – three states where about half or fewer residents are fully vaccinated, and cases are rising rapidly.
In Florida, cases increased by 991 percent in the last two weeks of December. The state’s vaccination rate is closer to the national average, but many seniors who live there are highly vulnerable to Covid.
On Tuesday, the state reported 51,644 cases, but no new deaths. In the past week, there have been 22 covid-related deaths. This is still far lower than the state’s record daily death count, which hit 1,554 on September 16, 2021 when the Delta variant caused a surge in cases across the US.
Similarly to last summer’s Delta surge, local leaders in the South have failed to institute new public health policies that would help control the virus’ spread.
As Florida sees more rapid case increase than any other state in the nation, Governor Ron DeSantis has failed to institute new Covid safety measures. Pictured: DeSantis speaks at a press conference in Jacksonville, Florida, January 2022
States like Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi have faced massive case surges in the past two weeks – and their undervaccinated populations are highly vulnerable to severe Covid
As the Omicron variant drives the biggest Covid surge yet in the U.S., some experts are particularly concerned about Southeastern states with lower vaccination rates.
The U.S. broke Covid records on Monday, reporting over one million new cases in a single day.
The total case number – 1,082,549 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data – was likely inflated by reporting delays over the holiday weekend.
On a rolling-average basis, daily cases are at 494,732 over the past seven days, up more than 110 percent from a week ago, according to a DailyMail.com analysis of JHU data.
The Omicron variant is now causing more than 90 percent of new cases across the country, according to newly released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates.
Covid hospitalizations have also risen rapidly in recent weeks.
As of January 4, the country had almost 113,000 hospital beds in use for Covid patients, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
This is higher than the number of Covid patients during the Delta surge this summer, which peaked at just over 100,000, according to CNN.
During the winter 2021 surge, national hospitalizations peaked at 140,000 – and the current wave is likely to surge past this number.
Some experts have pointed out that, out of the 113,000 Covid patients hospitalized in U.S. hospitals, there is a distinction between hospitalized ‘with’ and ‘for’ the disease.
Hospitals typically test all patients for Covid when they enter the facility, even when they have unrelated conditions.
As a result, some patients may come to the hospital after an injury, then test positive for Covid – yet have a mild or asymptomatic case.
Since Omicron is both more transmissible and more likely to cause mild symptoms than past variants, these mild cases hospitalized ‘with’ Covid may be more likely in this surge compared to past waves.
Still, all Covid patients put strain on the healthcare system, as Brown University expert Dr Ashish Jha explained in a recent Twitter thread.
‘Every time you enter a room for patient WITH COVID, its gowning, gloves, face shield, making sure N95 is snug,’ Jha wrote. ‘Slows everyone down from seeing other patients.’
All Covid patients put strain on the healthcare system, even when their cases are mild, experts say. Pictured: Waiting in line for Covid testing in New Orleans, Louisiana, January 2022
So far in the Omicron surge, national death numbers have remained relatively low.
The seven-day average for new deaths is 1,340 as of Monday, according to JHU data – a 12 percent decline from the previous week.
However, increases in Covid deaths typically lag case increases by several weeks, and death data do not recover from holiday reporting disruptions as quickly as case data.
When it comes to hospitals filling with Covid patients, states with low vaccination rates are more likely to become overwhelmed, the Washington Post reports.
The Southeast in particular could be ‘a major driver of the nation’s cases,’ according to David Rubin, Covid data expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
‘The [South’s] bigger test is probably going to be in the summertime, when they usually have their big surges,’ Rubin told the Post.
Still, when the majority of residents are not vaccinated, any surge has the capacity to send a lot of people to the hospital.
In Mississippi, where under half of residents are fully vaccinated, cases have increased sevenfold in the last two weeks – to 4,381 daily new cases on January 3
Louisiana reported 12,500 new Covid cases in a single day last week, almost twice the state’s previous daily record, set during the summer Delta surge
In Mississippi, just 48 percent of residents are fully vaccinated as of January 3, according to CDC data.
The state’s case rate has increased sevenfold in the last two weeks, from 565 daily new cases on December 20 to 4,381 on January 3, according to JHU data.
Just over half of Louisiana residents are fully vaccinated.
In this state, cases have increased fivefold, from 1,544 daily new cases on December 20 to 7,790 on January 3.
Louisiana reported 12,500 cases in a single day last week – almost twice the state’s previous record, set in August, according to the Post.
In Georgia – where about 51 percent of the population is fully vaccinated – cases shot up from 1,847 a day on December 16 to 15,183 on December 30.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said last week that he ‘will absolutely not be implementing any measures that shutter businesses or divide the vaccinated from the unvaccinated, or the masked from the unmasked.’
In Georgia, cases shot up more than eightfold in the last two weeks of December. Case reports in January have been impacted by holiday delays
Florida cases increased almost tenfold in the last two weeks of December. The state is reporting more than 40,000 new cases a day, as of early January
This policy could lead to more hospitalizations and deaths, Harry Heiman, public health expert at Georgia State University, told the Post.
‘We will see more people hospitalized and more people dying, especially as it moves into the more rural parts of our state, where there’s a higher number of people who are unvaccinated and less health-care infrastructure to take care of people when they are sick,’ he said.
Florida has seen a particularly sharp rise in cases in recent weeks.
In the last two weeks of December, cases increased by 991 percent, according to analysis by local epidemiologist Jason Salemi.
‘The absolute increase is astonishing – we are now averaging nearly 27,000 more cases EACH DAY compared to 2 weeks ago,’ Salemi wrote on Twitter on December 29.
‘If you have enough cases, you’ll end up with more hospitalizations,’ he said.
Florida’s vaccination rate – 63 percent of residents fully vaccinated – is higher than other Southern states, but the state’s large population of seniors makes it more vulnerable to surges.
The state’s surgeon general recently said that Florida will focus on testing ‘high-value’ patients rather than making tests broadly available for all residents.