Delta variant Q&A: How the rapidly spreading coronavirus variant might change your behavior

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As the delta variant takes hold, the unvaccinated are in for a rude awakening. It’s not just ignorance — they’re begging for a Darwin Award. Unfortunately, thanks to all these unvaccinated knuckleheads, vaccinated Americans are now being put more at risk, too.

The delta variant is a mutant strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Early estimates suggest the new strain may be 35% to 60% more transmissible than the alpha variant, another mutated strain that was already 43% to 90% more transmissible than the original. In simple terms, it’s not great.

As expected, the delta variant is already causing a surge in cases in at least half of states. Hospitalizations are predictably on the rise, with almost all admitted COVID-19 patients being unvaccinated. In Missouri — the state with the lowest vaccination rate of only 39.4% — hospitalizations increased a whopping 30% over the Fourth of July weekend alone. In Colorado, some hospitals remain at capacity as 16 counties have less than a 40% full vaccination rate.

Apparently, none of this deters the unvaccinated, who remain willing petri dishes. Alas, the following questions are for those who care enough to get vaccinated.

Are vaccines still working against the delta variant?

Yes, the vaccines still work against the delta variant — but only if you’re fully vaccinated.

The Pfizer vaccine — which is similar to Moderna’s — is currently showing an 88% effectiveness against the delta variant, with early evidence suggesting it holds up to 96% effectiveness against hospitalization. Even though it’s slightly reduced in efficacy, these are still excellent protections.

Meanwhile, partially vaccinated people may see as little as 33% efficacy for protecting against illness, and they join the unvaccinated in being more likely to get hospitalized. In short, getting the vaccine in full is key, and you should get the second dose if you haven’t yet.

Should I wear a mask?

Maybe. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to issue an update, given that even mild cases might be associated with long-term health effects, it’s wise to be cautious. Particularly if you live in a region with low full vaccination rates — which still constitutes over half the U.S. — wearing a mask might make sense.

As a general guideline, if you are entering an indoor space and cannot verify the vaccine status of those in the room, wear a mask. If, however, you are entering a well ventilated space with others who are vaccinated and equally cautious, the risk is substantially lower and may not warrant face coverings.

Should I travel?

It is possible to travel reasonably safely if you are vaccinated, but your travel might look a little different than usual. Just as you may consider the weather or time of year for destinations, now you may want to avoid destinations with low vaccination rates or active outbreaks — particularly if you have children under age 12 who cannot yet be vaccinated. You may also want to avoid crowded spaces, bring a mask and, if you must fly, select airlines that require vaccination for boarding.

My family won’t get vaccinated. Can I still visit?

Visiting an unvaccinated family member comes with higher risk, especially to the person who is unvaccinated. Even with the vaccine, it might be possible for a vaccinated member to transmit the delta variant due to slightly lower efficacies. Accepting this risk is your family’s choice, however the price of the gamble is high. Working to get family members vaccinated is the best bet, and reminding them of the risks to themselves amid the more transmissible delta variant may help.

Could delta lead to new variants that fully evade vaccines?

Possibly. Experts have repeatedly warned that if we do not reduce cases and increase our herd immunity against the virus we are likely to see more mutations. While some mutations are irrelevant, some are not. Already there is a delta-plus variant on the heels of this one. As cases increase we could easily see more.

The science behind vaccines is solid, and at least for now they are holding out against variants. But this may not always be the case. Getting vaccinated soon is absolutely our best defense against not only this variant but also against variants to come.

Trish Zornio is a scientist and lecturer in behavioral neuroscience and research methodology at the University of Colorado Denver. Photo by Mark Leffingwell of Colorado Newsline, which first published this commentary.

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