What We Know So Far About the Delta Variant

Natalia Gutierrez, M.D., Family Medicine

For the first time in over a year, life, as we knew it pre-COVID, was starting to take shape again. As vaccines began to roll out and hospitalization, death and positivity rates were trending down, it’s safe to say a lot of us may have felt safe letting our guards down a bit.

But there have been ongoing concerns that new mutations of the coronavirus could set us back — and that they might be even stronger than before. Unfortunately, it appears our concerns are taking shape as delta, a highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 virus strain, is sweeping through not only North Texas and the United States, but most of the world as we collectively open our borders again.

But what is delta and is it more dangerous than the original strain we saw last year?

 

Getting to Know Delta

The delta variant was first identified in India in December 2020. It then surfaced in Great Britain before reaching the U.S., where it is now the dominant variant.

According to the CDC, the delta variant is more transmissible than the common cold and influenza, as well as the viruses that cause, smallpox, MERS, and SARS. The CDC goes on to say that it may even be as contagious as chickenpox, which has up to a 90% infection rate for those exposed to it who are not immune either by already having had the virus or getting vaccinated against it. The delta variant is highly contagious, with the CDC estimating it to be more than twice as contagious as previous variants.

“We know viruses mutate, but we didn’t know with each mutation if it was going to be a more dangerous and potentially deadly mutation or not,” says Natalia Gutierrez, M.D., a family medicine practitioner and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano and at Texas Health Family Care, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “Unfortunately, I think the virus has gotten ahead of us and mutated in a way that I don’t think any of us were expecting — or at least I didn’t expect this.”

Gutierrez says delta has unanimously “changed the game” in the war against COVID-19, noting that she didn’t see any COVID symptoms or positive COVID cases in her practice for three months, but now she’s seeing a rising uptick in patients coming in with symptoms and testing positive.

“I think for a long time we got a little more confident and a little more comfortable going out and doing things again. In fact, I was so confident that I bought a vacation package,” she exclaims. “And then in the last three weeks, it has been just night and day. This has been a three-week period of a lot of COVID testing and a lot of positives, let me tell you.”

 

Delta’s Impact

According to the CDC, the highest spread of COVID cases and severe outcomes is happening in places with low vaccination rates. Although breakthrough cases (instances where fully vaccinated individuals become infected) do occur, the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths have been among the unvaccinated. Kids and young adults are a concern since the vaccines have not been approved for children under 12 and young adults are getting vaccinated at slower rates than other age groups.

A study looking into an outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts reported that out of the 469 people who caught COVID during this time period, 74% were fully vaccinated — but only four of them ended up in the hospital. The most important finding there is that less than 1% of those who were infected needed to be hospitalized, and none died.

“I’ve had several COVID patients in the last three weeks — some vaccinated, some not vaccinated,” Gutierrez says. “However, there’s a clear difference in the course of the disease when you’re vaccinated than when you’re not. I have some patients who I know their outcome would have been much different had they not been vaccinated.

“We may not be able to say that you won’t get COVID if you’re vaccinated, but we can say with a lot of confidence that it will protect you from developing severe disease that requires hospitalization,” she adds.

Gutierrez adds that compared to the original strain which had about a five to seven-day “incubation” period before symptoms started popping up, symptoms are typically popping up within two to three days of exposure.

 

How to Protect Yourself

Getting vaccinated has persevered as the top guidance to not only protect yourself but help us fight the war against COVID, even though there is evidence of breakthrough cases.

“I try to put things in plain language. Do you drive a car? Do you wear a seatbelt when you drive? Would you ever consider driving without wearing a seatbelt? Would you ever consider letting your kids and your family members go without a seatbelt,” Gutierrez asks? “Most people say no, even if they’ve never had a car accident. If you use a seatbelt while driving, it’s because you know something could happen and the seatbelt will help protect you from serious injury. That’s the same with vaccines.”

Due to the Provincetown study and other evidence, the CDC recently reversed its guidance that vaccinated people could lose the mask in public. Now it’s recommended that everyone should don their masks once again — even the vaccinated.

That recommendation also extends to all K-12 schoolteachers, staff, students and visitors, especially as we head into the new school year.

“We’ve already seen with summer camps this year, there’s been a rise in infected kids, and guess what? It doesn’t just stay there at the summer camp a lot of times,” Gutierrez adds. “Those kiddos go home and they bring it home with them to their family members and the community they’re in. We anticipate seeing something similar in schools when they start back up this week. So, if you can get vaccinated, please consider it, not just to protect yourself but to protect kids and those who can’t get vaccinated.”

 

Looking Forward to the Future

While it may feel frustrating to put our guards back up again, simple things such as wearing a mask indoors, staying home when sick, and getting vaccinated can be easy ways to help us contain this virus once again.

“I still tell all of my patients regardless of vaccine status that they still need to be careful because the virus has changed,” Gutierrez explains. “You still need to take care of yourself, you still need to mask indoors, you still need to wash your hands frequently, and I do the same thing. I don’t ask you to do anything that I don’t do too.

“We have a wonderful tool to help us fight this pandemic but it’s being underutilized. Now we have the chance to do something about it,” she adds. “A lot of people think you can’t change the world, but if you do one thing a day, you can do a lot of good.”

Find more information about COVID-19 and where you can get a vaccine close to you at TexasHealth.org/GetYourVaccine.

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