Massachusetts is a national leader in vaccination rates, but health experts caution that now isn’t the time to take the foot off the gas.

More than three-quarters of Essex County residents eligible to get the vaccine have had at least one dose administered as of July 20, with 70% fully vaccinated, according to state vaccination data released Thursday.

That comes as hospitals also face very low COVID-19 hospitalization rates and no more than a couple of new cases arriving daily, officials at both Beverly and Salem hospitals said Thursday.

But as a more contagious “delta” variant of the coronavirus accounts for 83% of cases in the United States, there are still “roughly 100 million people who have either not had the vaccine or don’t have any form of natural immunity from having COVID infection,” said Mark Gendreau, chief medical officer at Addison Gilbert and Beverly hospitals.

“That’s the big wild card out there, with that number of people,” Gendreau said. “We saw those news stories, instances of this in Alabama where people were begging for the vaccine right before (a doctor) was intubating them. She was saying, ‘I have to intubate you. It’s too late for the vaccine.’”

But it isn’t too late for those who haven’t gotten sick yet, according to Amy Courtney, director of infection control and patient safety at Salem Hospital.

“It all comes down to vaccinations, and we’re doing very well in Massachusetts with vaccination rates,” Courtney said. “You have to look at your communities and the pockets in your communities of unvaccinated population, and it seems to be consistent across the country that those are the people who are positive (to have the virus) and severely ill, needing hospitalization.”

There’s another wrinkle approaching: the flu season, which officials say could easily outpace last year after mask mandates and regional shutdowns left the flu with no real vectors to spread.

“Having people indoors unmasked is always a risk of transmission, particularly mostly unvaccinated populations. There’s still a lot to learn about the duration of immunity and a lot of unknowns about what the flu season is going to look like,” Courtney said. “If we can continue to increase the number of fully vaccinated people as we ramp up the vaccination program for the flu season, we’ll position ourselves in the best place we can.”

So again, the solution, Courtney said, as it has been since vaccines first became available, is to get vaccinated.

“Our health care workers are exhausted,” Courtney said. “We just ask that people be in support of their local health care workers and get vaccinated, not only for their own health, but to support their local health care workers. We need to all do our part in this.”

Dustin Luca may be contacted at 978-338-2523 or

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