In anticipation of an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, states and cities across the United States have happily begun reopening previously closed communities for business, leisure, summer holidays, and travel as life has nearly returned to normal.

However, according to The Guardian, health officials remain on high alert given one persistent obstacle to defeating COVID-19. We are talking about a large number of unvaccinated people in America, which could allow the virus to mutate and potentially give rise to more infectious and increasingly deadly variants of the coronavirus.

So far, according to the CDC, about 55% of all Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This means that unvaccinated people are not only at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, but could also potentially undermine America’s vaccination rollout if any future variant of the coronavirus emerging in the US shows significant vaccine resistance.

“Unvaccinated people are basically the cannon fodder of the virus. The virus needs people to infect them in order to reproduce, and the more people it has that are vulnerable or susceptible to infection, the more likely it is to mutate, ”said Dr. Michael Saag, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

46 U.S. states have recorded at least a 10% increase in new coronavirus cases as of Wednesday, according to CNN.

Against the backdrop of an almost nationwide increase in the number of cases of COVID-19, attention is again being paid to the distribution of the vaccine. With no deadline set for July 4th for at least 70% of American adults to receive the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, the Biden administration – along with federal, state and local health officials – is urging people to especially young people, get vaccinated as soon as possible.

But even amid more aggressive efforts to boost vaccinations, several states, many of which are concentrated in the south, continue to lag behind.

As of July 5, Arkansas, where less than 35% of its adult population is fully vaccinated, has reported new cases of COVID-19, five times the national average.

Likewise, Oklahoma, where only 39% of adults are fully vaccinated, is seeing a similar increase in coronavirus cases.

Those who remain unvaccinated are at risk of infection and also have an increased chance of being hospitalized or dying from COVID.

But in addition to the risk of getting the worst form of COVID-19, unvaccinated people present additional opportunities for the coronavirus to mutate. The delta variant, a more contagious and aggressive mutation of the virus that is currently the dominant strain, is a direct result of the coronavirus mutation in infected people.

Viruses mutate when they enter the body of an infected person. Some viral mutations can weaken the virus, while others, as is the case with the Delta variant, make it more dangerous.

Consequently, groups of unvaccinated people not only risk transmitting the virus to others, but they also risk spreading a more potent and infectious version of COVID.

“Unvaccinated populations of any size are breeding grounds where the virus will eventually cause some form of mutation that is likely to be a problem for us,” said Dr. Susan Hassig, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

While epidemiologists are still uncertain about the need for revaccination in the face of new strains, COVID-19 mutations could challenge the immunity afforded by existing vaccines.

“This has been a problem all along. We talked about this from the beginning, and, as expected, there were several options … These viruses will continue to appear, and it is only a matter of chance and a matter of time whether one of these options will prove to be more or less resistant to existing immunity provided by vaccination, ”says Dr. Michael Saag.

With the proliferation of Delta, increasing cases and gaps in vaccination rates amid continuing travel, public health officials are encouraging the maintenance of preventive measures such as social distancing and wearing masks to limit the likelihood of infection.

But, as Susan Hassig and Michael Saag agreed, the most effective protection against future mutations of the virus and existing strains is complete vaccination.

“What we can do about this is to make everyone vaccinated. This primarily protects us from infection, and if the virus cannot infect, it will not replicate … and a new variant will not appear, ”says Dr. Saag.