After several months of declining COVID cases and increasing vaccinations, pandemic anxieties are resurfacing once again in response to the climbing rates of the Delta variant.
As the highly contagious Delta variant contributes to a rapid rise in cases across all 50 states, many Americans are left wondering how this surge will impact their communities, and whether or not vaccines can continue to protect them against infection and severe illness.
As Vault Medical Services’ National Medical Director, I’m committed to helping you and your community stay safe. Using current evidence and data, here’s what we know so far about Delta’s impact on the United States, what’s still unclear, and how vaccination and ongoing testing will be crucial to curbing the surge:
Why is the Delta Variant More Contagious?
Research shows that Delta is more contagious because the viral load—the amount of virus present in the upper respiratory tract—is 1,000 times higher in those infected with Delta than with previous strains. The variant also binds more strongly to the ACE2 receptor on the host cell surface and takes over the machinery of the cell more efficiently to make host cells produce more viral particles. This means a lower dosage of Delta can lead to infection, needing fewer viral particles to bind for someone to get sick. This is also why we’re seeing more infections in people who have been vaccinated, also known as breakthrough infections.
But the reassuring news is the efficiency of vaccines in protecting against severe illness and death: More than 97% of COVID hospitalizations (most of which are now due to the Delta variant) are people who are unvaccinated, demonstrating that vaccines continue to offer the best protection we have against severe COVID-19 illness, hospitalization, and death. In other words, though it's still possible to get infected if you’re vaccinated, if you do, you'll typically get less severe symptoms and the likelihood of dying is very low.
What are the Symptoms of Delta?
While Delta does have a lot of the same symptoms as the original strain of COVID, there are some important differences. One is that the symptoms of Delta may present as a common cold, including congestion, sneezing, fever, and body aches, and sometimes a cough—but less frequently with the loss of taste or smell. Otherwise, the symptoms of the Delta variant are the same as those that present with infection with other COVID variants.
Can Delta Make You Sicker?
The evidence is unclear. Though there are no peer-reviewed studies showing that Delta can make you sicker, there are some recent data from Singapore, Scotland, and Canada that hint that it may make people sicker, especially in unvaccinated people.
How Many Vaccinated People are Getting Infected with Delta?
We know that less than 1% of current Delta infections are in vaccinated people. However, recent internal reports from the CDC show that the Delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox, which means it can spread very easily. Ultimately, though you’re more likely to get infected with Delta than prior, less contagious strains, if you’re vaccinated, you’re significantly less likely to be hospitalized or die from complications of the infection.
Are Children More At Risk?
Compared to the original or Alpha strain of COVID, we're seeing a higher frequency of children and young people contracting Delta and ending up in the intensive care unit (ICU) , but we don’t know exactly why yet. Some experts suspect that part of the reason we’re seeing younger people get severely ill with Delta is because of lower vaccination rates among young people: Individuals under the age of 39 are about half as likely to be vaccinated as those over 65. While the number of young people and children getting severely sick is very low, it's still concerning and a reason to remain vigilant.
With that in mind, employers and schools should be thinking about what they're going to do to test people on a regular basis. Lots of companies had plans to come back to the office in September or post-Labor Day, and across the country, children are beginning to re-enter the classroom and students are headed back to campus. More and more people can be asymptomatic or have COVID present as a simple cold, even when vaccinated. To have a true understanding of whether COVID is present in your school or organization, you need to do regular testing.
Vault has created a guide for schools developing and implementing COVID-19 test protocols that are both appropriate to meet their needs and ensure a successful return to campus. The guide was informed by more than 16 months of successful surveillance testing models at schools across the country, offering suggestions on what works (and does not work).
How Can We Stop the Spread?
First, we need to change the mindset of people who are choosing to not get vaccinated. Second, we need everyone to continue getting regular testing to be sure we're not spreading it to those who want to be vaccinated, but can't because of a medical condition or their age.
It’s also important to wear masks in indoor or crowded settings regardless of vaccination status, as per the recent guidelines recommended by the CDC.
Delta is an evolved, worse version of COVID, and unfortunately, it’s unlikely to be the last strain like this that we see. The most impactful thing we can do to contain the virus as much as possible is to get people vaccinated.
Why Testing Is Crucial
Experts agree that getting vaccinated is the most effective COVID-fighting strategy that we have. Still, given what we now know about breakthrough infections, testing measures are essential for helping to contain outbreaks and protecting the elderly, immunocompromised, and unvaccinated, particularly since breakthrough infections can be asymptomatic.
States and organizations have already implemented rigorous testing protocols that have been effective at keeping infections from spreading.
By vaccinating those who are eligible and maintaining regular testing efforts, we can help keep infections low and prevent the virus from mutating into more possible harmful and dangerous variants.
Want to learn more about Vault’s COVID solutions? Visit this page for more information.