The Delta variant now represents more than 80 per cent of all coronavirus cases in the United States, said health officials on Tuesday as they reiterated calls for Americans to get vaccinated.
Testifying before the Senate health committee alongside senior members of the White House coronavirus team, the head of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, said the Delta variant now represented 83 per cent of sequenced cases – a "dramatic increase" – compared to 50 per cent the week of July 3rd.
“Since the pandemic peaked in January 2021, we have seen large reductions in Covid-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths,” said Dr Walensky. “On the other hand, our progress across the country is not uniform. Vaccine coverage varies by state and by county. Communities where people remain unvaccinated are most vulnerable and most likely to experience increase in case counts.”
Top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci stressed the importance of vaccines in fighting serious illness and death. "We have the tools to end this epidemic, it is up to us to utilise those tools to their maximum," he told the bipartisan group of senators. He also said that studies were under way to see if booster shots were needed to increase the "durability of protection".
New cases have been on the rise in the United States in recent weeks, rising by 49 per cent last week. A small number of states accounted for the bulk of the increase, with states like Florida and Missouri experiencing rocketing numbers. Overall, 60 per cent of over-18s in the United States are fully vaccinated while 68 per cent have received at least one dose.
On Tuesday, the White House confirmed that a member of staff who is fully vaccinated tested positive. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the individual had not been in contact with President Biden and was isolating while awaiting another test.
"The news today is that while breakthrough cases will happen, the vaccines are effective and prevent serious illness and death," said Ms Psaki. She also said that health protocols remained stringent at the White House.
A fully vaccinated press official with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also tested positive. The individual had met with delegates from the Texas state legislature who brought their fight against new voting laws in their state to Washington. Five of the Democratic politicians have tested positive for coronavirus.
During the hearing, Dr Fauci clashed with Senator Rand Paul who claimed that the National Institute of Health played a role in funding a lab in Wuhan that was studying the Covid-19 virus.
“Senator Paul, you do not know what you are talking about. And I want to say that officially,” said Dr Fauci.
Dr Fauci and other members of the virus task force said they agreed that misinformation on media channels was hampering the vaccination effort, as the Biden administration continued to call on internet companies to address the problem of false information on their platforms.
Earlier Mr Biden clarified his claim that Facebook was "killing people" by allowing coronavirus misinformation to circulate. He said that 12 users on the platform were spreading the false claims.
“My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally, that somehow I’m saying Facebook is killing people, that they would do something about the misinformation, the outrageous misinformation about the vaccine. That’s what I meant,” he said.
He declined to say what action he would take to curb the spread of disinformation on social media platforms. But White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said the administration was reviewing section 230, a law that gives legal protection to internet companies.