The widespread availability and administration of COVID-19 vaccines have changed the trajectory of the pandemic in the United States. However, vaccination coverage varies across the United States, and transmission risk remains considerable in areas with low vaccination rates. The emergence of more transmissible variants—including Delta—increases the urgency to expand vaccination coverage and for organizations to continue to monitor the status of the pandemic in their communities and apply layered prevention strategies to minimize preventable illness and death in the interim.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a joint report titled “Guidance for Implementing COVID-19 Prevention Strategies in the Context of Varying Community Transmission Levels and Vaccination Coverage.” This article explores the report’s key takeaways and federal agency recommendations for how organizations can update their local COVID-19 prevention strategies.
COVID-19 vaccination remains the most effective means to achieve control of the pandemic. Since peaking in January 2021, COVID-19 cases and deaths in the United States had begun to decline noticeably. That is, until June 2021, in which COVID-19 cases spiked about 300% nationally, followed by hospitalization and death increases. This surge was primarily driven by the proliferation of the coronavirus’s highly contagious and transmissible Delta variant.
The Delta variant is more than two times as transmissible as the original strains of the coronavirus circulating at the start of the pandemic, causing large, rapid increases in infections. This could potentially compromise the capacity of some local and regional health care systems to provide medical care for the communities they serve. For these reasons, until vaccination coverage is high and community transmission is low, the CDC recommends that organizations regularly assess their need for prevention strategies to avoid stressing health care capacity and jeopardizing adequate care for community members battling both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 conditions.
Even though studies continue to validate that COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the United States are effective against severe illness and death from coronavirus infection, current vaccination coverage is uneven in the United States. However, implementation of layered prevention strategies can reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Given the recent spread of the Delta variant, the CDC recommends organizational leaders consider the following critical factors to inform local decision-making:
- Level of COVID-19 community transmission
- Health care system capacity
- COVID-19 vaccination coverage
- Capacity for early detection of increases in COVID-19 cases
- Populations at increased risk for severe outcomes from COVID-19
Although increasing COVID-19 vaccination coverage remains the most effective means to control the pandemic, additional layered prevention strategies may be needed in the short term to minimize preventable illness and death.
As a result, the CDC recommends all unvaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings. Additionally, based on emerging evidence on the Delta variant, the CDC also urges fully vaccinated individuals to wear masks in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission. If they or someone in their household is at increased risk for severe disease, or if someone in their home is unvaccinated (including children who are currently ineligible for vaccination), then fully vaccinated people might even consider wearing a mask in public indoor settings, regardless of transmission level.
The most important public health action to end the pandemic remains increasing vaccination coverage. But until this goal is achieved, alternative COVID-19 prevention strategies recommended by the CDC can help reduce community transmission. If transmission worsens locally, your unique prevention strategies should be bolstered to maximize the protection of your organization’s community.
Further, according to the CDC, prevention strategies should only be relaxed or lifted after several weeks of continuous sustained improvement in the level of community transmission. In areas with low or no COVID-19 transmission and with testing capacity in place, layered prevention strategies might be removed one at a time while organizational leaders monitor closely for a rise in COVID-19 cases.
The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has changed the course of the pandemic in the United States and significantly reduced hospitalization and death among vaccinated individuals. However, vaccination coverage varies across the United States; therefore, the emergence of more contagious and transmissible variants of the coronavirus fuels the necessity to expand vaccination coverage. In the meantime, it’s important for organizations to continue to monitor the pandemic in their communities and implement layered prevention strategies to minimize preventable cases.
For additional COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination resources, reach out to HR&P.