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Second Opinion: What You Need to Know About the Delta Variant

Dr. Susan Fleischman, interim chief medical officer for Blue Shield of California, answers timely questions about the Delta variant of COVID-19

The Delta variant of COVID-19 is now the dominant strain of the virus in the U.S. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), this variant makes up an estimated 83% of current US cases. It has been identified in all 50 states.

Susan Fleischman, M.D.

In this article, Dr. Susan Fleischman, interim chief medical officer for Blue Shield of California, answers timely questions about this troubling trend.

Who is most at risk from getting the Delta variant virus?

It’s clear from the current data that unvaccinated people have the highest risk of getting this virus. This current surge is being called the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” because unvaccinated people have a serious risk of getting infected and being hospitalized. 

Right now, the vast majority of cases and hospitalizations is in the unvaccinated. And those hospitalized are younger than during prior surges, likely because immunization rates are quite high in older adults. The high rates of Delta in the community put those unvaccinated at risk, in particular senior citizens and those who have immune system issues.

Can I get sick from the Delta variant if I’m already vaccinated?

There is a lot of press around these “breakthrough” cases of COVID in fully vaccinated people.  It is possible for fully vaccinated people to get infected with the Delta variant; the vaccines are not 100% effective in preventing infection.  However, the current data across the country indicates that it is rare for those who are vaccinated and infected to become seriously ill, require hospitalization, or die. On July 2, 2021, the California Department of Public Health reported that vaccinations prevent nearly all COVID-19 related hospitalizations.

What are the symptoms of the Delta variant?

Reports from some international studies indicate that this variant appears to cause different symptoms that the original COVID-19 strain: cold-like signs such as headache, runny nose and sore throat are typical of Delta.  These are different than the traditional COVID-19 symptoms that include loss of smell, shortness of breath, fever, and persistent cough.

My young children aren’t eligible to be vaccinated; does that put them at risk to catch the Delta variant?

Unvaccinated people have the highest risk of contracting the virus and there is not yet an approved vaccine for children under age 12. Compared to adults, children are far less likely to get serious disease or require hospitalization.  And families can provide protection by continuing to follow proven preventive safety procedures that minimize risk: wear a mask when indoors at places outside your home or with those who are unvaccinated; avoid poorly ventilated spaces; avoid crowds; maintain 6 feet of social distancing in public spaces.  Overall hygiene such as washing hands often with soap and water after outside experiences and keeping home surfaces clean help prevent other viral infections as well, such as colds and flu.

Do you anticipate local outbreaks in areas with large percentages of unvaccinated people?

These local outbreaks are already occurring. For the past several weeks, national, regional, and local news media have reported dramatic increases in the percentages and actual numbers of Delta cases in states and counties where most people have not been vaccinated. 

There is conflicting information about wearing masks because the Delta variant is so contagious. What’s your advice about wearing masks for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people?

While the CDC has not come forward suggesting universal indoor masking, local authorities are issuing either mask requirements (LA County) or mask recommendations (Bay Area) for public indoor settings. Masking is of the utmost importance to those unvaccinated and adds a layer of protection for the vaccinated.  The way out of this surge is getting everyone eligible vaccinated.

Is it likely that other variants will emerge? What can we do to help prevent that?

All viruses mutate, and the more virus is circulating in the world, the higher the chances of a more infectious or more deadly variant emerging.  The best defense is for us to get our rates of vaccination up, and to assist other countries in doing so as well. To date the current vaccines are proving to be effective against the variants that have emerged, reducing the risk of hospitalization and death. Vaccination is the most successful defense for all variants. COVID-19 vaccines are proven defenses against infection, severe illness, hospitalization, and potential death. Masking adds another level of individual protection.

Why is the Delta variant more contagious than other virus strains of COVID-19?

According to current data, the Delta is spreading about 55% faster than the Alpha strain that was identified in 2020. As Andy Slavitt, former senior advisor to President Biden’s covid response team said about Delta, “It is like COVID-19 on steroids.”

What are the most important things people can do to protect themselves and their loved ones from Delta?

Get vaccinated, get vaccinated, get vaccinated.  And follow proven preventive safety procedures to reduce risk for all family members, including children under 12, for whom no vaccine has yet been approved.