Even though people started to feel some hope, or at least cautious optimism, early this summer, that the pandemic might recede, there was still the possibility that the COVID-19 virus could return. And it could be even more dangerous.
The second variant, Delta, was discovered in the United States. The first identification of Delta in India was in late 2020. It quickly spread rapidly to Great Britain and the United States, where it quickly soared. It was the most prevalent SARS CoV-2 variant. At the time, it accounted for more COVID-19 patients (at that time), and led to an overwhelming rise in hospitalizations in certain states. The predominant variant in the U.S. is Omicron
Delta is more contagious than other variants and is more common than any of the others. Studies have shown that people who aren’t vaccinated are more at risk. The lowest vaccination rates are the most dangerous places for severe consequences and high cases.
Inci Yildirim, MD, and Ph.D. is a Yale Medicine pediatric infectious disease specialist and vaccinologist. She wasn’t surprised at the rapidity of Delta’s progress. She says that viruses change over time and undergo changes as new ones spread and reproduce.
We know that people who have had their coronavirus vaccines completed have stronger protection against COVID-19 than those who have not. However, there are enough questions for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend additional precautions. This includes mask guidelines, regardless of whether they have received any booster shots and recommendations for additional precautions.
Although most Delta cases have occurred in people who have not received a vaccine, data has also shown that the variant can be transmitted to others even among those who are vaccinated.
The CDC states that if a person infected by COVID-19 is vaccinated and has symptoms, they are capable of transmitting the virus to others. However, data is not yet available on whether people who have had a breakthrough case but do not have symptoms, can still spread the virus.
These are five facts you should know about the Delta version.
- Delta is more contagious than other viruses.
The CDC has designated Delta as a variant that is of concern. This designation was also used for the Alpha strain first identified in Great Britain, Beta strain first discovered in South Africa, and Gamma strain first identified in Brazil. The World Health Organization [WHO] established new naming conventions to distinguish variants from their numerical names.
- believes that Delta’s rapid growth rate was particularly dramatic. Perry Wilson, MD is an epidemiologist at Yale Medicine. He said that Delta spread 50% faster than Alpha. Alpha was also 50% more contagious than the original strain of SARS CoV-2. Dr. Wilson states that in an unmitigated environment, where no one is vaccinated and nobody wears masks, it’s possible for the average person infected by the original coronavirus strain to infect 2.5 people. “In the same environment Delta could spread from one person to perhaps 3.5 or four other people.”
He says, “Because the math it grows exponentially more quickly.” “So, even a relatively low rate of infection can quickly lead to a virus dominating a large area.”
- People who are not vaccinated are at the greatest risk
The United States has a high proportion of unvaccinated Americans in the Southern and Appalachian States, including Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and West Virginia. Although the vaccination rates are low in these states, they are increasing in other areas of the country. After the Delta surge, Idaho’s health officials increased health care rationing in September. This was to ensure that all patients in hospitals were covered. Idaho has one of the lowest vaccine rates in the nation.
It is also a concern for children, teens, and young adults. Dr. Yildirim says that a study done in the United Kingdom found that Delta-infected children and adults aged under 50 years were 2.5 times more likely. Since May, Pfizer BioNTech vaccines have been available in the United States for adolescents and teens. In early November, FDA approval was granted for the Pfizer vaccine to be administered to children aged 5-17 years old by the CDC.
Dr. Yildirim says that as older age groups are vaccinated, younger people who aren’t vaccinated will be more likely to contract COVID-19 with any variation. “But Delta seems more to have an impact on younger age groups than other variants.”
- Omicron and Delta could lead to ‘hyperlocal epidemics.
Dr. Wilson believes that if Omicron and Delta continue to accelerate the pandemic then the most important questions will be about increased transmissibility. He says that the answer may depend on where you live and how many people are vaccinated. Dr. Wilson calls it “patchwork vaccination”, where there are pockets of highly vaccinated people that are close to areas that have received 20% vaccination. This allows the virus to hop, skip, and jump from one area to the next.
He says that in some cases, the virus could be contained within a low-vaccination area that is also surrounded by high-vaccination areas. The pandemic could then look very different from what we have seen in the past, as there are hotspots all over the country.
Instead of a three- to four-year-long pandemic that ends once enough people have been vaccinated, it would be possible for a small increase in cases to last for a shorter time. Dr. Wilson said that it sounds almost like a good idea. He says, “It is not.” If there are too many infected people in one area, the health care system can become overwhelmed and more people will be killed. “That’s something that we need to be concerned about a lot.”
- You still have much to learn about Delta.
Scientists are working hard to gather as much information as possible about Delta. The important question is whether the Delta virus will make you sicker than the original. The severity of Delta was first discovered in studies from Scotland, Canada, and other sources. These studies suggested that the Delta variant could be more likely to cause hospitalizations in those who are not vaccinated. This summer’s Lancet Infectious Diseases report found that Delta-positive people in England had twice the risk of being hospitalized than those with Alpha.
Another question concerns how Delta affects the body. Dr. Yildirim states that there have been instances of symptoms other than those caused by the coronavirus strain. She says that cough and loss of smell seem to be less common. Based on surveys done in the U.K., headaches, sore throats, runny noses, and fever were all present.
Experts continue to investigate the cases of breakthrough infections in Delta. The exact number of breakthrough infections in the U.S. is difficult to determine, as the CDC has stopped counting deaths or hospitalizations that do not result in death. The agency points out that there is no vaccine that is 100% effective and any increase in cases will lead to an increase in breakthrough infections.
Additional questions and concerns surround Delta, including Delta plus, a subvariant of Delta that has been discovered in the U.S., U.K., and other countries. Dr. Yildirim says that Delta Plus also has a different mutation than the Delta variant. K417N is a mutation that affects spike protein, which the virus uses to infect cells. This is the main target of the mRNA as well as other vaccines, she states.
“Delta Plus was first reported in India. However, the type of mutation was also reported in variants like Beta that was earlier. Dr. Yildirim says that more data is needed in order to determine the true rate of spread and effect of this variant on disease burden, and outcomes.”
- Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself against Delta.
Doctors say that the best way to protect yourself against Delta is to get fully vaccinated. The CDC website has updated information regarding the recommendations for boosters and eligibility.
Even though breakthrough infections can infect fully vaccinated individuals, the CDC says that there may be a faster decrease in the viral genetic material in vaccinated persons. So, although they are still able to transmit the virus to others for the same amount as those who have not been vaccinated, studies also show they could spread the virus more quickly.
Additional CDC prevention guidelines are available for unvaccinated persons. The CDC recommends “layered prevention strategies” to prevent more Americans from getting vaccinated. This includes wearing masks in public indoor settings where there is the high or substantial transmission. The agency also recommends universal indoor masking for all K-12 school teachers, staff, and visitors. Depending on where you live, there may be mask mandates.
Dr. Yildirim says, “Like all things in life, it is an ongoing risk assessment.” You should apply sunscreen if it’s sunny and you will be outside. You should wear a mask if you’re in a crowd, possibly with unvaccinated persons, and you keep your social distance. The best thing for you if you’re not vaccinated but are eligible for the vaccine is to get it.
There are many people out there who haven’t received the vaccine because of personal logistical or other difficulties. Or they might have decided not to get it. Is the Delta vaccine enough to motivate those who are able to get vaccinated? It’s impossible to know for certain, but Dr. Wilson says it is possible. He encourages anyone with questions regarding vaccination to speak to their family doctor.
This post was written by a medical professional at The Wellness Firm. The Wellness Firm services include workplace flu clinics, flu vaccinations, onsite rapid corporate employee Covid testing, the physical exam for employment, as well as American Heart Association CPR certification classes. Founded by local Firemen, The Wellness Firm has been providing a safer Tampa Bay since 2006.