During an appearance on Fox News Sunday, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins warned that those who remain unvaccinated are at risk for contracting COVID-19 as the delta variant continues to spread.
"Here we are with delta variant, which is so contagious, and this heartbreaking situation where 90 million people are still unvaccinated who are sitting ducks for this virus, and that's the mess we're in," Collins told Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. "We're in a world of hurt, and it's a critical juncture to try and do everything we can to turn that around."
Cases of COVID-19 continue to spike across the country as the delta variant has become the dominant strain of the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the seven-day average of new cases has jumped from about 10,000 a day in June to the current average of 120,000 in about two months.
Collins said Sunday that he feared that number would continue to rise.
"This is going very steeply upward with no signs of having peaked out. I will be surprised if we don't cross 200,000 cases a day in the next couple of weeks, and that's heartbreaking considering we never thought we'd be back in that space again," Collins said. "That was January, February. That shouldn't be August."
Health experts say the current surges in cases, hospitalizations and death are almost entirely preventable, as COVID-19 vaccines are now available to everyone who wants one.
Though more breakthrough infections have been recorded, studies show such cases remain "rare," and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently noted that 99.99% of those vaccinated had avoided a deadly or severe case of COVID-19.
The current spike in cases has also resulted in more children being sickened with the virus. Collins noted Sunday that there are currently 2,000 children in hospitals across the country, many in ICUs.
"So, anybody who tries to tell you, 'Well, don't worry about the kids, the virus won't really bother them,' that's not the evidence," Collins said. "And especially with delta being so contagious, kids are very seriously at risk, and it's up to all of us to do everything we can to protect them as well as we're trying to protect everybody else at the same time."
He also called for local school districts to enact mask mandates in schools to cut down on the spread of the virus.
"The schools that have started to open without mask requirements, outbreaks are happening. And what happens then? Kids are sent home for virtual learning, which is what we were trying to avoid," Collins said. "It's really unfortunate that politics and polarization have gotten in the way of a simple public health measure. This mask I'm holding somehow became a symbol it shouldn't have been."
Collins said that he thought misinformation and disinformation on social media might have contributed to public opposition to masks.
"We've somehow slipped into a space where the evidence and the basis for making grievances on facts has gotten pushed aside by politics, by social media conspiracies, by this incredible depth of grievance and anger that seems to be held by so many," Collins said. "Our future as a nation has got to revolve around coming away from that type of approach to everything, or I don't see how we're going to solve all of our society's problems that are looming in front of us."
A handful of states have taken steps to prevent districts from requiring masks in schools. Among the most vocal critics is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is threatening to withhold pay from school superintendents that enact mask mandates in their districts.
Last Thursday, the White Hosue COVID-19 response team said that Florida recorded more positive COVID tests than 30 states combined in the past week and that Florida and Texas accounted for 30% of new cases across the country in the previous seven days.