This scanning electron microscope image shows the original coronavirus (orange), isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (green) that were cultured in a lab.

What you need to know about the new Delta variant

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By
Norine Dworkin

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Founding Editor

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National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIH

This scanning electron microscope image shows the original coronavirus (orange), isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (green) that were cultured in a lab.

Just a few weeks ago, the Covid-19 Delta variant made up 3 percent of new cases in the U.S. Now, this variant, which originated in India, accounts for 20 percent of all new coronavirus cases, according to medical experts, and is projected to reach 50 percent by July. Cases in the U.S. have roughly doubled every two weeks. Speaking at a Tuesday White House briefing, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, described Delta as the country’s “greatest threat” to stopping the spread of coronavirus, CNN reported. Fauci anticipated “localized surges” among unvaccinated communities.


55 percent of Orange County is vaccinated according to the Florida Department of Health.


VoxPopuli talked with our go-to infectious disease expert, Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, to get us up to speed on the fast-moving Delta variant.


VoxPopuli: Dr. Schaffner, when we spoke three weeks ago, the Delta variant made up a tiny fraction of cases in the U.S. and you were thinking other strains might even crowd it out. Now, it’s projected to become the dominant strain in the country. This is the Lightning McQueen of viruses. How is it moving so quickly? Is it just that more contagious?


Dr. William Schaffner: Different viral strains have different characteristics. The first variant of concern was the British strain. It was more contagious than the original strain by about 50 percent, and that fairly quickly became the dominant strain in the United States. The Delta variant is about 50 percent more contagious than we think the British strain is. It's contagiousness is so enhanced that that gives it a survival advantage. It's like having a number of people running a 100-yard dash. It can just run faster than the others, so it's going to be more successful in being transmitted from one person to another. That’s why it can become the dominant strain and why it’s spreading so rapidly here in the United States.


VoxPopuli: Do we understand what makes it so contagious?


Dr. Schaffner: We don't know exactly. But it usually means that the virus is strong, encountering even small amounts of it can make you sick.


VoxPopuli: Does it make people sicker than the original coronavirus and other variants?


Dr. Schaffner: We are worried that the Delta variant is not only faster, it’s nastier. There’s data that suggests once you get an infection, you’re more likely to need hospitalization.


VoxPopuli: Who’s at risk?


Dr. Schaffner: If you're unvaccinated, you are at the top of the list for being at risk. What we are seeing nationally now — and it's reflected in my own medical center — of the people who are hospitalized with Covid-19, 90 percent-plus are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated. That means that 90 percent of hospitalizations were potentially preventable if people had been vaccinated.


VoxPopuli: Am I safe if I'm vaccinated?


Dr. Schaffner: Our vaccines seem to work very well against the Delta variant, with a percent protection in the high 80s. If you’re vaccinated, it is very unusual for you to become infected and require hospitalization. That’s how good these vaccines are. There are some exceptions to that rule. If you’re immuno-compromised, you can't be quite that secure. But the vaccines still seem to be doing their job. It’s this large proportion of the population that’s still unvaccinated that’s fertile ground for this new virus. The virus is looking for unvaccinated people.


VoxPopuli: So are children age 11 and under at risk?


Dr. Schaffner: They are. Delta seems to have more of a predilection for young adults and even adolescents and perhaps, even down to children. Now, some of this, maybe all of it, has to do with where the large group of unvaccinated people is. So it may just be that they're unvaccinated, and that's the route the virus will take because that's the easy route available to it. So with those kids, we need to be doing what we’ve been doing for the last year and a half. When they’re indoors with others, they need to be masked, and they need to avoid large groups.


VoxPopuli: Does it matter which vaccine I got?


Dr. Schaffner: We haven’t got any data to distinguish among them at this point.


VoxPopuli: Do I still need a mask if I'm vaccinated?


Dr. Schaffner:  If you’re outdoors, you don’t have to wear a mask. But if you're indoors around other people and you don't know about their vaccination status, then I become very conservative. I'm one of these people who recommends both a belt and suspenders — vaccinations, and, when in doubt, put your mask back on and observe social distancing. If you're a person who is immuno-compromised or who has heart disease or lung disease, or is elderly, if you become infected, you're quite likely to get very sick, and nobody wants that. Those folks need to be especially careful.


For more information about vaccines, where to get vaccinated and to request a home appointment, visit ocfl.net/vaccine.

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