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What You Need to Know About the Delta Variant

Updated July 27, 2021

Why is there concern about the COVID-19 Delta variant?

The Delta variant poses a risk for two major reasons. First, this variant is more infectious and is causing more severe disease, primarily in unvaccinated individuals. This strain originated in India but quickly became the dominant strain in many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, because of these factors.

The current data estimates the Delta variant is two to two-and-a-half times more infectious than the original strain. The United Kingdom experienced an increased hospitalization rate as the variant swept the nation, and we are seeing the same increase state-by-state. This unfortunately comes on the heels of months of decreasing hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 in the United States due to the successful vaccine roll out.

This leads to the second concern, which is that of waning efficacy of the current vaccines. There is still some debate about how effective our current vaccines are against the Delta variant. The most recent studies from the United Kingdom and Israel show a reduction in effectiveness, but the U.S. studies of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines show only a slight reduction, maintaining a prevention rate of greater than 88% for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines versus greater than 93% for the Alpha variant. Johnson & Johnson recently reported a reduced immune response, but real-world data has not been reported yet.

Is the Delta variant as deadly?

The answer is yes but with a large caveat. As previously mentioned, the vaccines remain very effective at preventing infection, and breakthrough cases have been largely asymptomatic or mild. On the other hand, unvaccinated individuals are at much greater risk with the Delta variant compared to previous strains.

U.S. data lags behind current trends, but we are seeing the first rise in months of hospitalizations and deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently shared that the United States is seeing a 70% rise in cases, a 36% rise in hospitalizations and a 26% increase in deaths. Presumably, this is from the wave of Delta variant cases. It is also important to note that the case rates in the United States have been the lowest since prior to the summer surge last year, and cases are higher in areas with low vaccination rates.

Are the symptoms different?

No. There have been reports that cough and loss of smell are less common, but the usual symptoms of COVID-19 infections remain the same: fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea. If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to get tested and self-isolate until test results are back.

If I’m vaccinated and I contract the Delta variant, will the disease be less severe?

Yes. Current data shows that most breakthrough infections are mild or asymptomatic in vaccinated individuals, across all vaccines. If you or someone you know still has not received one of the three readily available vaccines, it is still not too late.

If I’m vaccinated, should I still wear a mask and take other precautions (social distancing, avoiding crowds, etc.)?

This has been and remains a contentious topic for many reasons. Previously, the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) were providing different guidance, which makes it difficult for people and businesses to determine the safest decision.

  • On July 27, 2021 the CDC made a stunning reversal in their recommendation because of the increased infectivity and spread of the Delta variant. The CDC now recommends that everyone over the age of 2 should wear a mask while indoors or outdoors if unable to maintain physical distancing.
  • The WHO guidance remains unchanged and recommends fully vaccinated individuals continue to wear masks indoors and outdoors if physical distancing cannot be achieved.
  • The state of Washington currently limits the mask mandate to healthcare or congregate care settings and public transportation.
  • At Overlake, we still require masking for all patients, staff and visitors because safety of everyone who walks through the door is our highest priority.

This conflicting guidance can make things difficult when making the decision to wear a mask. I still wear a mask when I'm out shopping and limit social exposure to small groups with fully vaccinated people, and I encourage others to do the same to keep Washington as a leading example to combat this pandemic.

My child isn’t eligible for the vaccine yet. Are they the most at risk?

The COVID-19 pandemic is more than assessing just individual risk. It is also about family and community risk, which should be considered when we make the decision to get vaccinated or wear a mask. Luckily, children have been largely spared from severe disease due to COVID-19. However, the Delta variant seems to be affecting children more than before, causing increased severity of symptoms and an increase in hospitalizations. Additionally, they remain a large source of risk when it comes to transmission. Asymptomatic and mild disease can still spread the infection throughout a family, school or an event.

The CDC and WHO both recommend that children over age 2 wear a mask when indoors or outdoors and unable to maintain social distancing. While we wait for the vaccines to be approved for children under age 12, masking and social distancing remain our only tools to protect them.

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