If you are unvaccinated, then you should be, notes Dr. Armando Paez, chief of the Infectious Disease Division at Baystate Health.
According to Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 data for the first week of July, 24 states have seen an uptick of at least 10% in cases. First identified in India, the variant has accounted for 51.7% of all new COVID infections in the United States over a two-week period ending July 3, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The rapid spread of the variant (along with the fact that, as of July 8, less than half of the U.S. population – 47.7% – is fully vaccinated) puts in jeopardy the nation’s efforts to beat the virus.
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Delta variant:
1. Classified a “variant of concern”
The Delta variant, also known as B.1.617.2, is a “variant of concern” per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classification.
2. Genetic mutations give the virus an advantage
Similar to other variants previously reported, the Delta variant differs from the original strain due to genetic mutations that give it an advantage to infect more people, an adaptive evolution of the virus.
3. Changes in the spike protein
The most concerning mutation of this variant is L452R that confer changes in the spike protein that make it more transmissible and can help it to evade the immune system.
4. Most dominant variant
It was predicted to be, and now is, the dominant SARSCoV2 variant circulating in the U.S.
5. Most infectious strain so far
It is the most infectious strain reported so far, more infectious (~40-60% more) compared to the alpha strain (first emerged in the UK, already ~ 50% more transmissible compared to original strain and the predominant strain in the U.S. until recently).
6. Unconfirmed if it is more dangerous
It is still being evaluated and is unconfirmed if it is more dangerous compared to other strains.
7. Still treated the same way
In general, COVID-19 due to the Delta variant is treated the same way at this time.
8. Vaccines still provide protection
Based on most recent reports, currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson) in the U.S. offer significant protection against severe disease and hospitalization due to COVID-19 by the Delta variant.
9. Breakthrough infections are usually mild
Breakthrough” infections due to the Delta variant among vaccinated individuals can occur infrequently, but most likely will be mild disease or asymptomatic cases.
10. Unvaccinated people are the most vulnerable
You are most vulnerable to the Delta variant if you are unvaccinated and have not been previously infected. Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is still the best and safest way to protect yourself against the Delta variant.
Q&A with Dr. Armando Paez
Q: What effects do you expect the Delta variant will have in winning the battle against COVID-19 in the country?
A: As the Delta variant spreads more easily (and potentially more dangerous), our vaccination efforts should appropriately increase to help prevent the spread. As has been described before, it is a “race” between vaccination and infection. Getting completely vaccinated remains the most effective and safest way to protect against COVID-19.
Q: There is talk about a Delta variant and “Delta plus” now, what is the difference?
A: The “Delta plus variant,” also known as B.1.617.2.1 or AY.1., is a sub lineage of the Delta variant. It acquired an additional mutation, K417N (also found in Beta and Gamma variants), that changes the spike protein that can make it even possibly more transmissible. It does not appear to be common at this time.
Q: How does the Delta variant differ from other COVID-19 variants? Are symptoms worse? How more contagious is it? Does it result in more severe illness?
A: The Delta variant has genetic mutations that make it different from the original strain and other variants. The most concerning mutation is the L452R that confer changes in the spike protein making it more transmissible and help evade the immune system. It is estimated to be about 40-60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant (B.1.1.7). It appears to have a minimal effect on the monoclonal antibody therapies and moderate reduction in neutralization by the antibodies from those who recovered from COVID-19 and vaccination. Based on one study in Scotland, the Delta variant is associated with increased risk of hospitalization compared to the Alpha strain, particularly in those individuals with other medical conditions. It is still being confirmed if it can truly cause more serious illness. Fortunately, the COVID-19 vaccinations are still very effective in preventing serious illness and hospitalization due to COVID-19.
Q: Will the other variants continue to spread as well?
A: Other variants may continue to spread but the variant that is most transmissible will eventually predominate. The virus will continue to spread among those unvaccinated who were not previously infected (and recovered). If we reduce this group by vaccination, it will effectively prevent spread of the virus.
Q: Who is at risk?
A: The unvaccinated individuals who have not been infected (and recovered) from COVID-19 are most at risk because they are unprotected.
Q: Will the vaccines protect against the Delta variant?
A: Yes. Based on available information, complete vaccination with currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines – Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson will offer significant protection from getting symptomatic infection and serious illness due to COVID-19. The level of protection continues to be investigated, but so far, it appears that vaccination significantly protects one from the Delta variant, but not 100%.
Q: How can I protect myself against the Delta variant?
A: If you are not yet completely vaccinated, get it done. In the meantime, continue to wear your mask, practice social distancing and wash your hands frequently.
Q: What about young children who can’t get vaccinated yet?
A: Vaccination studies in young children are ongoing and data should be available soon. In the meantime, unvaccinated children should continue to wear a mask, particularly in indoor public places.
Q: Some health experts continue to say you do not need to mask to protect yourself against the Delta variant if you have been vaccinated? What is your opinion?
A: If you are completely vaccinated, the risk is significantly low in contracting COVID-19, particularly if you live in a community where there is low prevalence of infection. Masking may confer additional protection even if you are fully vaccinated in high prevalence areas, particularly in crowded settings as vaccination does not confer 100% protection. If you have a medical condition or are taking medications that weaken your immune system, masking also will offer extra protection.