Editor’s note: This story was produced in conjunction with the Record-Journal’s Latino Communities Reporting Lab. A free Spanish version is available at Myrecordjournal.com/latino-news.
As states lift many COVID-19 restrictions and the pace of vaccinations has slowed in the U.S. the rise of the delta variant has some health experts concerned about a possible third wave among those not vaccinated.
The delta variant, also known as B.1617.2, was first detected in India and has spread to more than 60 countries. It accounts for nearly all new coronavirus cases in the United Kingdom and over 20 percent of new cases in some areas within the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Delta is the fastest-spreading variant to date and can cause more serious symptoms, leading some experts to fear outbreaks in unvaccinated parts of the U.S., the CDC recently warned.
Doctors have seen an increased likelihood of hearing loss, severe stomach pains and nausea in patients infected with the new variant. In most cases, patients are more likely to be hospitalized, require oxygen treatments and endure other complications.
That risk has public health officials stressing the benefits of vaccines, which have been shown to be highly effective against the delta variant. In one recent study, researchers in the U.K. found that a two-dose regimen of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 88% effective against symptomatic disease from the delta variant, according to media reports.
Doctors have compared unvaccinated persons to incubators that provide a host for the virus to mutate.
“If you are vaccinated, you’re going to be protected, which is another very good reason to encourage people strongly to get vaccinated,” says Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “If you are not vaccinated, you are at risk of getting infected with the virus that now spreads more rapidly and gives more serious disease.”
Vaccination rates are considerably higher in Connecticut and the Northeast, where roughly 65 percent of the population has been vaccinated. But as more people gather without masks for indoor and outdoor events, the concern is unvaccinated adults and children. Health officials are working to get as many people age 12 and up vaccinated to protect against the new variant.
Viral loads are reduced among the vaccinated, and many breakthrough cases — those who test positive for COVID-19 after being vaccinated — have no or very few symptoms, said Dr. Tilahun Gemtessa, infectious disease doctor at MidState Medical Center in Meriden.
“Even if you get the infection, it’s less likely it will lead to a severe infection,” Gemtessa said. “It’s less likely to be transmissible.”
But immune compromised and unvaccinated people remain susceptible to the virus and the risk of more serious illness with the delta strain. Those populations should continue to wear masks and social distance, doctors said.
As an example, viral spread can be found in the Southwestern and Western United States, where areas such as Missouri are reporting vaccination rates of lower than 35 percent.
Health officials in Springfield, Missouri, say the faster-spreading delta variant is the primary cause of an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the region, according to the Associated Press.
Kendra Findley is a health investigator for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department. Findley told the Associated Press the increasing cases and random testing of virus samples have confirmed the more infectious variant is spreading quickly in Greene County, and in much of southwest Missouri. Administrators at the two largest hospitals in the Springfield-Greene County region are urging people to get vaccinated.
“Globally, delta is the most serious development that we know of in terms of the evolution of the virus,” William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told USA Today.
“We have seen the delta variant in Connecticut in about 25 cases,” said Dr. Virginia Bieluch, head of infectious diseases at the Hospital of Central Connecticut. “We are starting to get data, but the vaccines in the U.S. offer protection. It’s a real concern among the unvaccinated.”
Most of the people who have tested positive for the delta variant are younger and the symptoms tend to be milder, Bieluch said. But there is data suggesting the variant can cause more severe illness.
Bieluch encourages children under 12 to continue to wear masks, and get vaccinated when they are eligible. Most experts fear there could be another COVID-19 outbreak in the fall when schools reopen and people head back inside.
“The only way to protect against variants is to get vaccinated,” Bieluch said.