WILMINGTON — Gov. John Carney on Wednesday formally extended the state’s public health emergency order for another 30 days.
The extension allows the state and medical providers to continue COVID-19 vaccination and testing programs. Under Delaware law, public health emergency declarations must be renewed every 30 days.
Gov. Carney’s extension comes as each school district has returned to in-person learning.
“Getting all Delaware students back in the classroom for in-person learning has been, and remains, our top priority,” said Gov. Carney in a statement. “Delawareans who are eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine should get the shot to reduce spread of COVID-19 in our communities and keep our children in their classrooms learning. These vaccines are extremely safe and effective at preventing serious illness and hospitalization, even against variants. Visit de.gov/getmyvaccine to find a free vaccine provider in your community.”
The summer unofficially drew to a close with nationwide COVID-19-related deaths per day back up to where they were in March. Delaware, like most of the rest of the country, began the summer with record-low case rates and hospitalizations but suffered a surge of the virus in late July and August.
The delta variant is filling the nation’s hospitals, sickening alarming numbers of children and driving COVID-19-related deaths in some places to the highest levels of the entire pandemic. Schools that reopened their classrooms are abruptly switching back to remote learning because of outbreaks. Legal disputes, threats and violence have erupted over mask and vaccine requirements.
The U.S. death toll stands at more than 650,000, with one major forecast model projecting it will top 750,000 by Dec. 1.
The summer wave was fueled by the extra-contagious delta variant combined with stark resistance to vaccinations that formed along political and geographic lines, said Dr. Sten Vermund of the Yale School of Public Health.
“The virus was more efficient in spreading among the unvaccinated, so that you blunted the expected benefit of vaccines,” Dr. Vermund said.
Delaware is averaging 400.9 new cases of the virus per day over the last week, according to Wednesday’s update from the Delaware Division of Public Health. The seven-day rolling average for percentage of positive tests is up to 7.9% — above the World Health Organization’s recommended mark of 5%.
The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Delaware is at 230. It was as high as 250 recently, a number not seen since the state was coming down from the peak of the pandemic in January and early February.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. More than six months into the U.S. vaccination drive, President Joe Biden held a White House party July Fourth to celebrate the country’s freedom from the virus, and other political leaders had high hopes for a close-to-normal summer.
Then, the bottom fell out.
The crisis escalated rapidly from June to August. About 400,000 COVID-19 infections were recorded for all of June. It took all of three days last week to reach the same number.
The U.S. recorded 26,800 deaths and more than 4.2 million infections in August. The number of monthly positive cases was the fourth-highest total since the start of the pandemic.
The 2021 delta-driven onslaught is killing younger Americans at a much higher rate than previous waves of the pandemic in the Northeast last spring, the Sun Belt in summer 2020 and the deadly winter surge around the holidays.
During the peaks of those waves, Americans over age 75 suffered the highest proportion of death. Now, the most vulnerable age group for death is 50-64.
Overall, the outbreak is still well below the all-time peaks reached over the winter, when deaths topped out at 3,400 a day and new cases at a quarter-million per day. Delaware’s hospitalizations were as high as 474 in January, and the state averaged more than 900 new cases per day at times during the winter.
The U.S. is now averaging over 150,000 new cases per day, levels not seen since January. Deaths are close to 1,500 per day, up more than a third since late August.
Even before the delta variant became dominant, experts say there were indications that larger gatherings and relaxed social distancing measures were fueling new cases.
“We had been cooped up for over a year, and everyone wanted to get out,” said Dr. David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “In the face of that kind of strong change in behavior, even getting almost two-thirds of our adult population vaccinated wasn’t enough.”
The COVID-19 vaccines remain highly effective against hospitalization and death, but many tens of millions of eligible Americans remain unvaccinated. Nearly 40% of Americans 12 and older are not fully protected.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76.7% of Delawareans 18 or older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine — this number includes residents who got their vaccine out of state and at sites such as Veterans Affairs offices and Dover Air Force Base. DPH said 58.7% of Delaware’s total population has had at least one dose.
Yale’s Dr. Vermund sees reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the next few months. Cases in most states appear to be plateauing and are likely to decline in the fall, buying health authorities more time to vaccinate adults and teenagers before flu season.
“If we can continue making progress between now and Thanksgiving, we may be able to substantially blunt the coronavirus surge in flu season,” Dr. Vermund said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.