'Every one of those deaths is unnecessary,' expert says of rising Covid-19 US death toll as tens of millions remain unvaccinated

Originally Published: 03 OCT 21 03:43 ET
Updated: 03 OCT 21 12:05 ET

    (CNN) -- With a first-of-its-kind antiviral pill against Covid-19 potentially headed towards distribution, the health care community may soon have another tool to combat a virus that has claimed the lives of more than 700,000 Americans.

Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said Friday they created an antiviral pill which can reduce risk of Covid-19 hospitalization and death by 50%, and Merck said it will seek emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its molnupiravir medication "as soon as possible."

"We'll be able to prescribe this to folks. They'll take a five-day course and hopefully be able to stay home, not come in for an intravenous infusion and keep folks out of the hospital. So, it's really very promising news," Dr. Jonathan Reiner, CNN medical analyst and professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University, told CNN's Pamela Brown Saturday.

But Reiner noted full immunization of the country -- the best method for beating back the pandemic -- will not happen due to resistance from some, and a substantial number of Americans have died since late February as vaccine access began to expand.

"We've lost 700,000 Americans now and fully 200,000 of those folks have died since vaccines have been available almost to everyone in this country, and every one of those deaths is unnecessary. So even though the news is great for this antiviral agent, really the message that people need to receive is 'get vaccinated.' No one needs to die from this virus," he said.

Nearly 56% of all Americans and around 65% of those ages 12 and up who are eligible are fully vaccinated, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As progress slowly moves forward nationwide with the rate of inoculations, tens of millions of unvaccinated Americans remain at higher risk for Covid-19.

Different parts of the country continue to have varying levels of success with vaccination efforts. Fifteen states have yet to fully vaccinate more than half of their residents, according to CDC data: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming.

The four states currently using more than 40% of their hospital ICU beds for Covid-19 patients are on the list, according to Saturday data from the US Department of Health and Human Services: Idaho, Wyoming, West Virginia and Georgia.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday urged residents of his state to do their part to turn things around. "I keep reminding everybody -- all across this wonderful state -- that the way we absolutely curb this and stop this is get vaccinated," he said.

While much of the focus from health experts and officials remains on new inoculations that will help lower hospitalization rates, booster shots for some who were earlier fully vaccinated by the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are gaining traction.

About 4.74 million people have received an additional dose -- or booster -- since August 13, CDC data shows, which is a marked increase from less than two weeks ago. The number of recipients stood at around 2.2 million on September 20.

People ages 65 and older, people at high risk of severe disease and people whose jobs put them at risk of infection may get an additional dose.

Appearing on ABC's "This Week" Sunday morning, Dr. Anthony Fauci addressed people who remain hesitant about the vaccines, believing they are too new, saying, "This vaccine has been given to hundreds of millions of people ... throughout the world, so although it is 'new,' there is a lot of experience with this vaccine."

"It's within our capability to make sure that that turnaround we're seeing ... continues to go down," he said of the country finally turning a corner in the pandemic. "We can do that, really, by getting vaccinated."

Covid-19 mitigation efforts continue to help children

The more contagious Delta variant has contributed to more Covid-19 infections in children than when compared to the onset of the pandemic, which is of greater note since those under the age of 12 cannot yet be vaccinated.

Recent studies, however, have shown that mitigation measures are still an effective tool in lowering infections.

Covid-19 protocols at summer camps kept many from contracting Covid-19, and outbreaks increased when those safety measures weren't taken, according to two studies published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on Friday.

One study compared the number of infections at camps in Louisiana since 2020 and saw a 31-fold increase in cases from last year to this year.

Last year, there were only two outbreaks in the camps studied in Louisiana. There were no vaccines then, but there was a mask mandate in place and camps used other mitigation measures. This year, the camps saw 28 outbreaks that involved 321 cases among 2,988 campers and staff.

While there was a vaccine this year, the difference may have been that Louisiana dropped its mask mandate and "apparent underutilization of preventative measures," one report said. The Delta variant was also in wide circulation in the state in 2021.

Measures including "vaccination of all eligible adults and adolescents, wearing masks indoors, regular screening testing, physical distancing and cohorting, and increasing ventilation can help prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in settings with youths who cannot be vaccinated," the study said.

A second study looked at the number of infections among more than 7,000 campers and staff members in several states from June to August this year. The camps used multiple prevention strategies including masks, regular testing, podding, physical distancing and hand hygiene, and had a 93% vaccination rate among those who were eligible.

The camps had only nine Covid-19 cases, the study found, and there were no secondary infections.

"These findings highlight important guiding principles for school and youth-based Covid-19 prevention protocols," the study said.

People with disabilities had more issues accessing vaccines, study finds

While vaccine hesitancy remains a significant barrier in curbing the pandemic, other difficulties exist for those who want to be inoculated.

People with a disability in the US were less likely than those without disabilities to be vaccinated against Covid-19, even though they report less hesitancy and are disproportionately vulnerable to hospitalization or death from Covid-19, according to a new analysis.

People with a disability aren't any more hesitant to get a Covid-19 vaccine than those without a disability and were more often likely to report they would "definitely" get vaccinated. However, they reported more issues in accessing the vaccine, the analysis published in the CDC's weekly report suggests.

Of those who reported difficulties, they had the hardest time getting an appointment online. They also reported having a hard time getting to a vaccination site. Other obstacles included hours at vaccination sites that didn't work with their schedules, and not knowing where to get the vaccine.

"Reducing barriers to scheduling and making vaccination sites more accessible might improve vaccination coverage among persons with disabilities," the report said.

Among more than 56,000 people who responded in CDC phone interviews from the end of May until the end of June, about 5,000 reported having some form of disability. Earlier studies suggest a higher number of people have at least one disability -- about 15% of American adults. A disability in this case included anyone who said they had difficulty in seeing, hearing, walking, remembering, making decisions or communicating.

People with disabilities are more vulnerable to Covid-19, in part because they are likely to have a chronic condition that can make Covid-19 severe and are more likely to have health care access issues.

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