How the delta variant has changed the COVID-19 pandemic

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Earlier in the spring, it seemed like coronavirus cases were trending downwards and may potentially stay down there. However, the delta variant became the dominant variant in the U.S. and has led to another wave of outbreaks across the country. Thousands of people are being sent to the hospital because of the delta variant, and ICU beds are in low supply in many of the states with ongoing delta outbreaks, including Alabama, Oregon, Hawaii, and Texas. There are several factors that contribute to why the delta variant has become so dominant, some inherent in the variant itself and some rooted in how we have handled the pandemic.

The characteristics of the delta variant have seemingly allowed it to change the pandemic. For one, early data suggests that vaccinated people may be spreading the delta variant more than with previous variants. The viral load in infected and vaccinated individuals may be about the same as in unvaccinated individuals, and people may be infectious earlier. This seemed to be the case in Provincetown, Mass. where vaccination rates were high among summer travelers but an outbreak of more than 1000 mild or no symptom cases occurred.

Experts think that the delta variant is also more transmissible than previous variants. This means that it more easily can infect others, and that one infected person could potentially infect more people than with previous versions of the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate it is twice as contagious as previous variants.


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Another factor to consider is how behavior and policies have changed in the last few months. The CDC changed guidance on masking, and then changed it again. Many people may have stopped wearing masks and mask mandates have become even more unpopular.

Vaccination hesitancy and resistance is also part of the explanation for why this delta surge is happening. According to the CDC, about 70 percent of people over 12 who are eligible for vaccination have gotten at least one dose. But vaccination rates vary by state. Some states and counties are as low as 30 percent. With large swathes of unvaccinated populations, the virus can sweep through and infect a lot of people.

There is some hope though. If the delta variant is spreading faster, that may actually lead it to peak sooner. If the virus is running out of susceptible people to infect, then it could burn itself out eventually. That is what seems to have happened in the U.K. and India where the delta variant has had surges.

Through the winter and early spring, the message from experts was to get vaccinated if you were eligible. The message continues to be to prioritize vaccines but the public health policies still have a place in slowing down the spread. Currently, school boards are debating mask mandates for students going back to school in the fall.

What’s clear is that the delta variant has shown that the coronavirus will not simply disappear. 

“Nobody knows what tricks the virus has left,” Jeremy Luban, who is a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told the Washington Post. “It’s possible we’ve seen all of its chess moves, or its poker tricks, but it’s got a very big complicated genome and it probably still has some space to explore.”


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