Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued a stark warning Thursday about the spread of the delta strain of COVID-19, saying the variant is one of the “most infectious respiratory viruses” scientists know of.

The dire message comes amid urgency from public health officials that Americans get vaccinated. The CDC said earlier this week that cases of the delta strain now make up about 83% of new infections in the U.S., and a majority of deaths from the disease are among unvaccinated people.

The strain is much more transmissible than the alpha strain, or the initial version of COVID-19, and has led to surging case numbers in every state in the nation. The number of new cases has risen almost 250% since the beginning of July, and states with low vaccination rates, including Florida, Texas and Missouri, are experiencing some of the worst outbreaks.

“Compared to the virus we had circulating initially in the United States at the start of the pandemic, the delta variant is more aggressive and much more transmissible than previously circulating strains,” Walensky said at a press briefing. “It is one of the most infectious respiratory viruses we know of and that I have seen in my 20-year career.”

CDC director Rochelle Walensky said some hospitals are reaching their capacity limits as the Delta variant continues to sweep the United States, driving up case counts https://t.co/77YcbvhKMG pic.twitter.com/Wyu9tr1v8D

— Reuters (@Reuters) July 22, 2021

Vaccination remains the best defense against severe illness and death from COVID-19, even for those infected with the delta variant. But less than half of the nation is fully vaccinated, and the rise in new infections has prompted several counties to reinstate mask mandates in an attempt to stop the spread of transmission.

Walensky said last week about 97% of people who are hospitalized with COVID-19 have not been vaccinated, describing the situation as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

She added Thursday that, despite gains in vaccination and a return to normal in many states, the country was “not out of the woods yet,” and citizens still needed to make thoughtful decisions to protect themselves and their families.

“We are yet at another pivotal moment in this pandemic, with cases rising again and some hospitals reaching their capacity in some areas,” she said Thursday. “We need to come together as one nation, unified in our resolve to protect the health of ourselves, our children, our community, our country and our future with the tools we have available.”

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