CDC director says COVID-19 pandemic’s end ‘depends on human behavior’

The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the end of the COVID-19 pandemic will depend on what people do.

"I think a lot of it depends on human behavior," Dr. Rochelle Walensky said last week at an event hosted by the Health Coverage Fellowship, a health journalism program. "We have a lot of the science right now. We have vaccines and what we really can’t predict is human behavior. And human behavior in this pandemic hasn’t served us very well."

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"We are battling with one another and not battling with the common foe, which is the virus itself," she continued. 

According to the CDC, 66% of the U.S. population 12 years and older are fully vaccinated, more than 187 million people. Health officials have repeatedly urged Americans to get the COVID-19 vaccine, especially with the more transmissible delta variant. 

The number of Americans getting COVID-19 vaccines has steadily increased to a three-month high as seniors and people with medical conditions seek boosters, and government and employer mandates push more workers to take their first doses.

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Demand is expected to spike in a few weeks if regulators authorize the Pfizer vaccine for elementary school children, and some states are reopening mass vaccination clinics in anticipation.

The total number of doses being administered in the U.S. is climbing toward an average of 1 million per day, almost double the level from mid-July — but still far below last spring. The increase is mainly due to boosters, with nearly 10% of the nation’s over-65 population already getting third shots, but there are signs of increased demand from other groups as well.

On Thursday, 1.1 million doses were given, including just over 306,000 to newly vaccinated people, said Dr. Cyrus Shahpar, the White House COVID-19 data director.

But some states are still struggling to exponentially increase their vaccination rates. Louisiana’s problem of wasted COVID-19 vaccine shots continues to balloon, with about 224,000 doses thrown out across the state as health care providers can’t find enough residents willing to roll up their sleeves. The number of trashed doses has nearly tripled since the end of July, even as Louisiana grappled with a fourth, deadly surge of the coronavirus pandemic during that time that led to increased interest in the vaccines.

And there’s growing backlash as some states, cities and companies impose vaccine mandates, with some governors even banning mandates.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order on Monday stating that no entity in Texas can mandate getting a COVID-19 vaccine. According to a statement from Abbott’s office, "no entity in Texas can compel receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination by any individual, including an employee or consumer, who objects to such vaccination for any reason of personal conscience, based on a religious belief, or for medical reasons, including prior recovery from COVID-19."

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has threatened local governments with $5,000 fines per violation for requiring their employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus that has overrun hospitals and killed tens of thousands across the state.

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey barred districts that mandate masks from accessing a $163 million virus relief pool and said parents could receive $7,000 per student for private schools if their district mandates masks or goes into quarantine. More than two dozen districts, accounting for a third of the state’s 930,000 public school students, require masks.

The Los Angeles County sheriff says he will not enforce the county’s vaccine mandate in his agency. Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who oversees the largest sheriff’s department in the county with roughly 18,000 employees, said Thursday in a Facebook Live event that he does not plan to carry out the county’s mandate, under which Los Angeles County employees had to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1.

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United Airlines officials say their mandate has worked. About 96% of the airline’s 67,000 U.S. employees have been vaccinated and another 3% are seeking an exemption, which could result in being placed on unpaid leave. Fewer than 1% will be fired, which officials said would not affect airline operations.

There’s also division over mask mandates in schools where U.S. health officials believe would protect children who aren’t able to get vaccinated. 

The Education Department in August opened civil rights investigations into multiple Republican-led states that have banned or limited mask requirements in schools, saying the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights announced the investigations in letters to education chiefs in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. Those states have issued varying prohibitions on mask requirements, which the office says could prevent some students from safely attending school.

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The U.S. reached its latest heartbreaking pandemic milestone on Oct. 1, eclipsing 700,000 deaths from COVID-19 just as the surge from the delta variant is starting to slow down and give overwhelmed hospitals some relief.

But COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are coming down again, hospitalizations are dropping and new cases per day are about to dip below 100,000 for the first time in two months — all signs that the summer surge is waning. Across the nation, deaths per day have dropped by nearly 15% since mid-September and are now averaging about 1,750. New cases have fallen to just over 103,000 per day on average, a 40% decline over the past three weeks.

The easing of the summer surge has been attributed to more mask wearing and more people getting vaccinated. The decrease in case numbers could also be due to the virus having burned through susceptible people and running out of fuel in some places.

"There are some communities that are really well vaccinated and really well-protected," Walensky added. "And there are pockets of places that have very little protection, and the virus isn’t stupid. It’s going to go there."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.