CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Throughout the last 16 months of the pandemic, there have been surges in COVID-19 cases because of holiday gatherings.
Doctors say the delta variant poses more of a risk in areas with low vaccination rates. North Carolina and South Carolina have about 43% of the population fully vaccinated. That's lower than the national average.
As the country celebrates its independence, there are concerns certain parts are at risk of undoing the work to break free from the pandemic.
“We didn't have any major bumps or issues after Memorial Day, which is great, but we know with other holiday weekends we have seen increases so we'll just have to watch and see,” said Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris.
There's an added challenge this holiday week thanks to the more contagious delta variant that's now in all 50 states. Health officials say the virus is a real threat to people who haven't been vaccinated.
"I think that could lead to more serious cases, and ultimately, more hospitalizations, which could come after a big holiday weekend where there's spread in some communities," said Dr. David Priest, an infectious disease expert with Novant Health.
In Mecklenburg County, the overall vaccination rate went up 1% in the last week and now 49% of the population is fully vaccinated. But demand has dropped off so much, the county closed the clinic at MEDIC headquarters. Novant Health is also reducing the hours at its east Charlotte site, which will only be open Tuesdays and Thursdays, starting next week.
Health leaders are urging people to celebrate safely to help control the spread. Anyone who is fully vaccinated can enjoy the holiday weekend and feel well protected. But those who aren't need to be cautious.
“People who are fully vaccinated can really go out and enjoy our nation's birthday and they do not have to wear a mask, they do not have to social distance,” said Dr. Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary for health with Health and Human Services.
Because the Delta variant is more contagious and appears to make people sicker, those who are not vaccinated need to be careful.
"If they can, avoid large indoor gatherings because we know it's more transmissible indoors," Levine said.
Rachel Roper is a professor of Microbiology and Immunology at East Carolina University. Her work on the coronavirus dates to 2003. Eighteen years ago, she worked on the first SARS Coronavirus outbreak. She says the latest Delta variant is dangerous.
“As it sweeps through, we're seeing you know, in areas where people are not vaccinated or not high levels of vaccination, it's really starting to hit and cases are rising again," Roper said.
Friday, Dr. Anthony Fauci told WRAL News in Raleigh that, for right now, he doesn’t believe the CDC will change current mask guidelines.
"We’ve discussed this with the CDC, and the CDC feels that with vaccinated people, the recommendation has been that if you are fully vaccinated, you do not need to wear a mask either indoor or outdoor because you have a high degree of protection," Fauci told WRAL.
Despite this, the World Health Organization still recommends for masks to stay on. Roper says that’s because those guidelines are issued worldwide, and in many countries, the vaccination rates are a lot lower than in the United States.
Although there are no mask mandates in the Carolinas, that protection could be key in keeping cases under control.
“We are recommending strongly for people who are not vaccinated to be masking when they're out, especially in crowded areas, even outside,” Harris said. “I know that’s challenging but I think that’s how they're going to protect themselves and prevent spreading it to other people."
They are encouraging people to go get vaccinated as soon as possible. It’s important to remember it takes two weeks after the final dose of the vaccine series to have full protection.