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Delta variant: Should people in Virginia be concerned?

The delta variant is spreading rapidly across the United States — but not in Virginia. Are we home free?

Illustration of coronavirus Photo: Getty Images

The delta variant is the major form of coronavirus currently circulating in the United States. It’s known for being highly contagious. Yet Virginia has a lower caseload than many states in terms of delta variant COVID-19 hospitalizations. If you live in Virginia, can you rest easy? Or is there still cause for concern? VCU Health infectious disease experts Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., and Michael Stevens, M.D., answer these questions.

I’m hearing conflicting messages. On the one hand, if we’re vaccinated, we’re safe from infection. On the other hand, the delta variant is spreading like crazy. Whether we’re vaccinated or not, should we be worried?

The COVID-19 vaccines that are available in the U.S. provide great protection against COVID-19 overall and still appear to protect against the new delta variant. Those who have not been vaccinated should be the most concerned about infection, as most of the people now hospitalized for COVID-19 are the unvaccinated.

Are the symptoms and outcomes worse if you get COVID-19 through the delta variant?

There is reason to suspect that the delta variant results in more severe disease among the unvaccinated, but we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that COVID-19 is a bad disease for many people. More than 600,000 people have died of it in the United States. COVID-19 can cause long-term symptoms and is particularly deadly for older adults and many people with chronic conditions.

The delta variant is more infectious than the original strain of the virus, and unvaccinated people are at high risk for getting the disease.  The rise of new and highly infectious variants such as the delta variant is a great reminder that anyone who is not vaccinated should get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Looking at maps of delta variant prevalence, Virginia is not a hot spot for infection. Do you think we’re out of danger? Can we relax our guard?

Nationally the delta variant is the predominant strain of coronavirus circulating today. It’s only a matter of time before we see this variant spread widely here, too. In fact, it’s not a matter of if but when. The key messages are, we can’t let down our guard, and everyone who isn’t vaccinated should be vaccinated as soon as possible.

There is so much news about how much more easily the delta variant spreads. Even if the delta variant isn’t prevalent in Virginia now, do you see Virginia going back to more vigilant mask requirements and social distancing to prevent its taking hold here?

The delta variant is about 40-60% more infectious than prior forms of the virus. The best way to protect Virginians as a whole is to get vaccinated. Since the available vaccines in the U.S. are still protective against the coronavirus, this is the best way to keep the virus from spreading.  

Right now just about 62% of adults in Virginia are vaccinated. That’s a great start, but it’s not enough. If we start to see the delta variant spreading rapidly here, or we see the emergence of other variants, it’s possible that we may have to step back and resume more vigilant mask and social distancing requirements. Unvaccinated individuals should wear masks, particularly in indoor environments. Whether you’re vaccinated or not vaccinated, continue to follow CDC guidance on mask use.

Even if we’re vaccinated, should we return to mask-wearing and social distancing, just to be safe?

At present, there is no need to return to masking if you’re vaccinated. The available vaccines are very effective, particularly at preventing severe disease.

People who have compromised immune systems may not respond to vaccination, though, and should continue to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Everyone should continue to follow CDC and Virginia Department of Health (VDH) guidelines regarding mask and social distancing recommendations, as these have not been relaxed in all settings. And if you feel more comfortable wearing a mask, even if fully vaccinated, you should continue to do so, especially in indoor spaces.

Pfizer has announced that the efficacy of its vaccine is decreasing. If we received the Pfizer vaccine, should we be worried? What should we do?

The best available date suggests the vaccine is effective for at least seven months, and maybe even for a year or longer for severe disease.

The CDC and FDA are not currently recommending vaccine boosters. It is too early to tell how long the vaccines will be effective, but early data are very promising. At this point we should continue to follow CDC and VDH guidelines.  

Should we be worried that the other vaccine manufacturers will announce the same decrease in efficacy?

It’s too early to tell how long the vaccines will be effective. It’s possible that each of the vaccines will become less effective over time, but early data are very promising. It’s possible we may need repeat vaccines or booster shots in the future. This is currently an area of intense study. In the meantime, we should continue to follow CDC and VDH guidelines.  

It seems there will always be a bigger, more terrifying variant on the horizon. Should we just throw in the towel and give up?

With over 3 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines given globally, the available COVID-19 vaccines have proven incredibly safe. The vaccines available in the U.S. have proven particularly effective, as well. We have seen dramatic reductions in both infections and death due to COVID-19 over the past 7-8 months in the U.S.

The key message at this point is that if someone has not been vaccinated yet, they should do so as soon as possible. Viruses commonly evolve. The best thing people can do to prevent the emergence and spread of new variants is to get vaccinated.

For more information

For a variety of news and information on COVID-19 and how VCU Health is keeping patients safe, please visit our COVID-19 News Center

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