ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, expressed concern about ongoing efforts to fight COVID-19 and, finally, put the pandemic to an end.
Florida plays a key part in that but right now, the state has issues.
Although just more than half of Florida's population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, there remain far too many people who have not. That allows COVID-19 and other potential variants down the line to prolong the battle against the virus.
"If you get a variant that occurs because there’s so much virus circulating around and that variant eludes the protection of the vaccine, then an unvaccinated person, by not getting vaccinated, not only is putting themselves at risk and their family and their community," said Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during an interview with 10 Tampa Bay.
"They may also be a vehicle for the production and evolution of a variant that eludes vaccines, which would then be detrimental even to the people who have been vaccinated."
In Florida, front-line workers are fatigued as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to climb to new record highs week after week across the state.
As of Aug. 10, the Florida Hospital Association reports a total of 14,787 patients are hospitalizations with confirmed cases of COVID-19. Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows the state has at least a quarter of its inpatient beds in use for COVID-19.
And while the ongoing COVID-19 surge in Florida continues to rival and even surpass a peak last seen during the height of the pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis is refusing the idea of mask mandates and lockdowns.
“Well, you’re having a very difficult situation because of the low level of vaccination that you have, not only in Florida but some of the other states. Florida is really one of the worst in the sense of the number of new cases and now the number of new hospitalizations," Fauci said.
The latest data from the Florida Department of Health show that for the week of July 30, a total of 12,103,207 people in the state have received, at least, their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. That's about 60-percent of the total population, per the state's 2021 provisional population system.
According to Fauci, what the U.S. is now seeing is "fundamentally an outbreak, a pandemic of the unvaccinated" and Florida's low vaccination rate is making those living within its state lines more vulnerable to the virus.
Fauci says the Sunshine State, over the past week, saw about an 84-percent increase in cases and about a 110-percent increase in hospitalizations — and health experts have said most patients in their hospitals have not received a vaccine.
"That's really bad news," he added.
Fauci is pushing for Florida to require people to wear masks indoors for an "increased level of protection."
“You’re dealing with a very formidable virus. One that transmits very readily from person to person and you don’t want to get people infected and you don’t want to get people hospitalized," Fauci said.
DeSantis in July said COVID-19 is following a sort of "seasonal pattern," which health experts have explained isn't the case as the factors to this summer's surge primarily is driven by the more transmissible delta variant.
“This is a virus that really doesn’t know much about seasons," Fauci said. "We are not seeing something that we can say ‘well this is just seasonal, it’s gonna go away.’ This is summer, it’s bad. We’re gonna go into the fall and it could be bad in the fall unless we get more people vaccinated.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine may soon become the first to receive full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It's something Fauci says he hopes will happen, along with final approval for other companies' vaccines, in the next couple of weeks.
As for the argument of natural immunity and being previously infected by COVID-19 as reasons for not being vaccinated, Fauci finds they're not as strong as some may think they are.
According to his analysis, if you had the earlier alpha variant of the coronavirus, then you can "feel pretty good" that you would be protected against reinfection from that specific variant.
But that's not how COVID-19 always works.
“The problem with reinfection is that it doesn’t necessarily have the breadth of protection against new variants, including delta," he said.
There's also the fact that the coronavirus carries the ability to mutate and create several new variants over time, unlike measles, for example.
Fauci says measles is a virus that has not changed much over time, allowing for those who have been infected by the virus to just about have life-long protection. COVID-19, on the other hand, is more a more formidable virus that leaves even those who have been infected to get reinfected.
“We’re dealing with a virus that has mutated and shown us already that it can give and form different variants. We’re dealing with a very formidable variant now in that it has a very extraordinary capability of transmitting readily and efficiently from person to person," he said. "That is a real problem.
"And if you’re protected against one variant you may not necessarily be protected against another."
People 12 and older are eligible to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are authorized for people 18 up. All have been found to be effective against COVID-19, with a recent study finding two doses of the Pfizer vaccine offering 88-percent protection against infection caused by the delta variant.
Among people who have received a vaccine, the latest research shows infections are rare and for those who do experience symptoms, they tend to be mild.
Visit the Florida Department of Health's website to find a vaccine location near you.
You can watch the full interview with Fauci below: