A summer that once promised ‘independence’ from COVID-19 wraps up in despair

The summer of 2021, the second summer under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic, began on a hopeful note. 

The U.S. had just rolled out one of the most robust vaccination efforts in the world. Three vaccines were approved for emergency use and were readily available for most adults. Pfizer’s had just been approved for those 12 and older, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated people could ditch their face masks. By Memorial Day, the country’s 7-day case average was just over 18,000 and the 7-day death average was just over 400, lows not seen since the pandemic began. 

Cases, hospitalizations and deaths continued to drop even more in the coming weeks. The average number of daily cases dipped below 12,000 for the first time since March 2020. A celebratory Biden administration said the upcoming Fourth of July holiday would also serve as a symbol of the country’s "independence from the virus."

And then things took a shift. 

Tainted by a barrage of misinformation, the country’s vaccination rate began to stall. Resistance to the vaccine grew, especially among younger and more Republican demographics. States and employers began incentivizing the vaccine, offering cash and other prizes to lucky winners. President Joe Biden’s goal for 70% of American adults to have received at least one shot by July 4 wasn’t reached

And delta was seeping in. 

The delta variant of COVID-19, first identified in India in December 2020, had been in the U.S. since March 2021. But the more contagious strain didn’t become dominant in the country until mid-July

Health officials maintained every COVID-19 vaccine provided protection against severe illness from the rapidly spreading variant, yet vaccination rates were still stalled. Cases and hospitalizations began to rapidly increase.

Hospitals became overwhelmed again, with the majority of COVID-19 patients in the ICUs and on ventilators not vaccinated. Health officials began to call it the "pandemic of the unvaccinated."

And then, in a stunning near-reversal of previous guidance, the CDC said in late July that vaccinated people should start wearing masks again, citing new information about the increased ability of the delta variant to spread.

Hopes of ending the pandemic in the U.S. were effectively squashed.

RELATED: New CDC mask guidelines: Vaccinated should mask indoors, as should K-12 schools

By Aug. 1, daily new cases averaged near 90,000. Some companies began imposing vaccine mandates, and some cities began requiring proof of vaccine to enter restaurants and other social businesses. Some mask requirements were renewed, as was the debate of requiring them in classrooms as the start of the third school year afflicted by the pandemic quickly approached. 

Later that month, in an effort to add extra protection against the delta variant, the Food and Drug Administration authorized a booster vaccine for people who have compromised immune systems. About 10 days later, the agency granted full approval to Pfizer’s vaccine.

Delta continued to surge and by Sept. 1, daily average cases reached 155,000 — a high not seen since January.

And as cases and hospitalization rates climb, so do deaths. 

As of Sept. 3, the daily average death rate in the U.S. was more than 1,100, according to CDC data, a high not seen since March 2021 when the country was on the downswing from its worse surge yet.

Now, as the summer of 2021 comes to a close, 53% of the country’s population is vaccinated. Cases are still on the rise and the resulting deaths are still to follow. Delta continues to slow the economic recovery as well. 

RELATED: ‘No question’ delta variant is why August job growth wasn’t stronger, Biden says

Unvaccinated people were advised against traveling this holiday weekend as more than 93% of U.S. counties grapple with high levels of community transmission. 

Looking ahead, booster shots are likely in the near future. The Biden administration announced plans for boosters to be available by Sept. 20 for all Americans who received two-dose mRNA vaccines — Pfizer’s and Moderna’s, though approval is still pending from the CDC and the FDA. 

And, as vaccine approval for younger children is still also in the works, more in that age group may become infected with the virus. As of Aug. 26, an estimated 204,000 new cases occurred among children over the week prior, with a 9% uptick spanning a two-week period and a more than five-fold increase in cases since mid-July, rising from 38,000 by July 22, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

New variants are also taking shape, such as the Mu variant, B.1.621, and the yet-to-be-named C.1.2 variant

And, with nearly 645,000 Americans already dead from the virus, the U.S. is projected to see nearly 100,000 more COVID-19 deaths between now and Dec. 1, according to the nation’s most closely watched forecasting model.

The summer of hope has seemed to turn into the fall of hopelessness. 

This story was reported from Detroit.