Nurses wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) attend to patients in a Covid-19 intensive care unit (ICU) at Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Community Hospital on January 6, 2021 in the Willowbrook neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. - Deep within a South Los Angeles hospital, a row of elderly Hispanic men in induced comas lay hooked up to ventilators, while nurses clad in spacesuit-looking respirators checked their bleeping monitors in the eerie silence. The intensive care unit in one of the city's poorest districts is well accustomed to death, but with Los Angeles now at the heart of the United States' Covid pandemic, medics say they have never seen anything on this scale. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
Doctor: Patients 'beg me for the vaccine' before being intubated
00:53 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Across America, there’s a grim sense of déjà vu.

Despite now having a powerful tool to help suppress the spread of coronavirus – three very effective vaccines – the nation is once again seeing rising cases, hospitalizations and deaths, driven by and affecting mostly Americans who have not been vaccinated.

On Friday, the country’s seven-day average was more than 49,300 new cases daily – more than a 300% increase from a month ago. Hospitals across the US report their beds are filling up with Covid-19 patients who are younger than ever before – many in their 20s and 30s. The vast majority are unvaccinated.

In northern Florida, University of Florida Health Jacksonville reported more Covid-19 patients on Monday than their January peak, when they were treating 125 people.

“Cases are exploding in our hospital and in our communities,” Chad Neilsen, the hospital’s director of infection prevention, told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota on Wednesday.

The growing number of infections nationwide is fueled by the dangerous Delta variant – which is so contagious, one former health official said those not protected will likely get it. That variant already makes up more than 80% of new Covid-19 cases in the US.

While many Americans hoped for a carefree summer that finally marked the start of a return to normalcy, the latest surge is quickly shaping a different reality. With vaccinations now at their slowest pace since January and Covid-19 numbers continuing to rise, the country is quickly sliding backwards and measures that many Americans hoped were gone for good are slipping back into our everyday life.

People wear face coverings at Union Station in Los Angeles on Monday, July 19.

Local leaders are reinstating mask mandates

While most businesses and local leaders across the US did away with mask requirements as summer inched closer – most still asking unvaccinated Americans to keep on their face coverings – mandates are now slowly coming back.

Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous county, reinstated its indoor mask mandate earlier this month due to rising cases and hospitalizations and officials said it will stay in place until Covid-19 numbers improve.

New Orleans announced a new mask advisory Wednesday, asking everyone, regardless of vaccination status, to keep a mask indoors when they’re with people who are not in their household. Health officials said average daily cases in the city increased by more than 10 times over two weeks, the majority of which are unvaccinated people.

“People who continue to refuse to take the lifesaving COVID vaccine are now also putting the entire community in jeopardy. We must take action now to slow the rapid spread of the Delta variant,” said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the director of the city’s health department.

Nevada’s Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, announced it was reimplementing a mask mandate for workers in public places. The new requirement went into effect Wednesday after a unanimous approval from the Clark County Commission and will stay in effect through at least August 17.

Dozens of people spoke before the vote, nearly all of whom opposed the measure. Pediatric physician’s assistant Amanda Knowles said she supported it because “we have a duty to protect our children who do not have the option to be vaccinated at this point.”

In Missouri, the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County said that starting Monday, masks will be required in indoor public places and on public transportation for everyone 5 and older, regardless of vaccination status. Masks are also “strongly encouraged” outdoors as well, especially in group settings, officials added.

Some health experts are calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to rethink its most recent mask guidance, which says fully vaccinated Americans can shed their masks indoors and outdoors. Experts have said that recommendation, which came in May, prompted many unvaccinated Americans to go unmasked as well, as most businesses have no way to check vaccination status.

“I was among those who initially thought that the revised guidance might encourage more people to get vaccinated,” former US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams wrote in a column in The Washington Post published Wednesday, urging the agency to change its guidance. “In hindsight, it’s clear that the message many Americans heard was that, vaccinated or not, masks were gone for good.”

Schools are issuing similar requirements

Meanwhile, school officials across the US are gearing up to reopen their doors soon while many students are still ineligible for a Covid-19 shot. There is no vaccine for children younger than 12 yet in the US.

But since the pandemic’s earlier days, mask-wearing in schools has been a point of contention. Several states have already enacted legislation that prohibits districts from requiring masks in schools, while at least six others have announced mask requirements for K-12 students regardless of vaccination status.

At least eight of the 20 largest school districts in the US are making masks optional for students in school while another nine require masks, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Public school districts in Philadelphia; Fairfax County, Virginia; Hawaii’s Public Schools; and Prince George’s County, Maryland, are also requiring masks.

In Georgia, Atlanta Public Schools announced Thursday it will require masks for all students and teachers in schools and school buses. The district said it considered several factors, including the rise of the Delta variant and the fact that many students still can’t get a vaccine.

About 18% of its eligible student population is fully vaccinated, the district said, and about 58% of employees are vaccinated or plan to be. Two other Atlanta suburban school districts, Clayton and Dekalb counties, also announced that masks will be required when the school year begins in August.

The announcement came days after the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidance that supported in-person learning and recommended universal masking in school of everyone over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status.

Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools will also require students and staff to wear masks for the 2021-2022 school year, with the exception of students with specific health exemptions. In Wisconsin, the Madison Metropolitan School District said it will require masks for staff and students inside schools and school buses, except during outdoor activities or when they’re eating or drinking. A minimum social distance of three feet will be required and schools will be cleaned throughout the day, the district said.

Mask requirements for students have often sparked heated debates between local leaders and residents and this time is no different. On Tuesday, the Virginia Beach school board voted against a motion that would make masks optional in the upcoming year, during a meeting that lasted more than four hours.

Parents and community members lined up to speak out against the mask policy.

“You’re all hypocrites,” said Annie Palumbo, among the evening’s first speakers. “I’m here fighting with hundreds of other parents because we don’t want our kids masked for seven hours a day. And I look around and I see all of you sitting here without masks. Seriously, what’s the deal?”

Members of the board said its decisions followed guidance from the CDC and Virginia’s health commissioner. In a letter to families on Thursday, Virginia Beach City Public Schools said administration officials have reviewed the state’s latest guidance – published a day after the board’s meeting – and are consulting with local and state health officials on a plan.

The recently issued state guidance leaves mask decisions to local districts but “strongly recommends” elementary schools put an indoor mask requirement in place for students, teachers and staff regardless of vaccination status and that that “at a minimum” middle and high schools require masks indoors for those who have not been fully vaccinated.

Some companies are rethinking their return to office

The pandemic drastically changed the way Americans worked. While many expect to return to the office in the coming weeks, the latest surge is forcing some employers to rethink their plans.

Among them, Apple.

The company told employees in an email it was pushing back its return-to-the office plan by at least a month, and that instead of early September, employees should now be expected to return to offices as early as October 1, The New York Times reported.

Apple said that date could change again depending on the country’s Covid-19 numbers, but that it would let employees know at least a month in advance, The Times said.

CNN reached out to Apple, but the company did not confirm the delay in plans.

The key to getting our lives back

The way out of this, health officials say, is to get more shots into arms. Roughly 66.2% of the country’s eligible population has received at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose, while about 57.3% is fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.

Parts of the country with low vaccination coverage are the ones seeing outbreaks, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky recently said, while vaccinated communities are “generally faring well.”

“If you’re somebody who’s fully vaccinated, take a little breath here, you’re still really well protected by this vaccine and you can do a lot of stuff that you couldn’t do six months ago,” National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins told CNN’s Jim Acosta on Wednesday.

“But, for those who are not vaccinated, this is becoming a pandemic that has you in its sights,” he said.

State leaders have attempted to increase vaccinations with initiatives including lotteries and other prizes. The White House has taken a number of steps to reach the country’s young population, which according to CDC data has lower vaccine coverage than other age groups.

But a majority of unvaccinated Americans say they’re not at all likely to get a shot regardless of outreach efforts, according to new poll results published Tuesday, by Axios-Ipsos. A quarter or less of those who are unvaccinated said they would be likely to get the vaccine under certain circumstances, according to the poll, which was conducted July 16 to 19.

Without widespread protection against the virus, the country will likely continue to see outbreaks, experts have warned, and new – potentially more dangerous – variants could arise that could pose problems to vaccines.

CNN’s Naomi Thomas, Andy Rose and Miguel Marquez contributed to this report.