The Delta coronavirus variant, which devastated India and forced the UK to delay the removal of the remaining coronavirus restrictions, is now on the rise in the United States. What this means for you will depend on whether you are fully vaccinated and where you live.
Experts say we may be on the verge of seeing the emergence of COVID’s “two Americas”: one with high vaccination rates in which the Delta coronavirus variant poses little threat and the other with low levels of vaccination that will be vulnerable to renewed deadly rises. This division is driven largely by partisan politics, with higher vaccination rates in liberal cities and lower in conservative fortresses throughout the deep south and in rural areas across the nation.
“I call them two COVID nations,” Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told BuzzFeed News.
As long as there are low vaccination rates, the virus will continue to circulate and mutate, increasing the risk of new, more dangerous variants appearing. With vaccination in most of the world lagging far behind the US, the Delta variant is likely to be followed by others.
The Delta variant, also known as B.1.617.2, was first discovered in India in late 2020 and is believed to have driven this country. devastating wave of COVID-19, which began in March. It has since spread to more than 80 countries around the world, including the United States, where the CDC officially designated him on Tuesday as “variant of concern“.
Public Health England data indicates that the Delta variant is in between 40% and 60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant, also known as B.1.1.7. First identified in the UK and now the most common variant in the United States, the Alpha variant is in turn much more transmissible than previous forms of coronavirus.
So far, it looks like vaccines are available offering good protection against most variants. But the Delta variant appears to be able to escape partial immunity to the coronavirus. Although fully vaccinated people still appear to be well protected, people who have only received a two-dose vaccine remain more vulnerable.
A to study in the United Kingdom found that two doses of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine were 88% effective against the development of a case of COVID with Delta variant symptoms, not much different from the 93% efficacy observed against the Alpha variant. But after a single dose, the vaccine was only about 33% effective against the Delta variant, compared to more than 50% against Alpha. The effectiveness of natural immunity against a previous infection in protecting people against the Delta variant is unclear.
There are also indications that the Delta variant can cause more serious illnesses. A study of cases in Scotland published this week found that the risk of hospital admission with the Delta variant was roughly doubled compared to people infected with the Alpha variant.
“This is a nasty virus,” John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, told BuzzFeed News.
With the Delta variant now intended to explain for more than 90% of new infections in the UK and with cases and hospitalizations rising once again, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Tuesday that he will retard the removal of the remaining coronavirus restrictions in England, initially scheduled for June 21, for at least four weeks. (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own health rules, but have made similar moves).
In the United States, the Delta variant appears to be spreading faster than the Alpha variant at a similar stage in its rise to dominance, according to data from outbreak.info, a coronavirus monitoring project led by Scripps Research researchers in La Jolla, California.
It is unclear whether Delta will dominate as quickly and completely as it did in the UK, where it replaced an outbreak driven almost entirely by the Alpha variant. In the United States, more competing variants are circulating, making it harder to predict what will happen, Bette Korber, a computer biologist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, told BuzzFeed News. But he hopes Delta will become the most common variant in the United States in a few weeks. “It really moves fast,” Korber said.
Health experts say the U.S. could largely protect itself against the Delta variant by rapidly increasing vaccination rates slowed in recent months. But they fear that some people who are not yet vaccinated may look at what happened to the Alpha variant and decide that they can afford to wait and see.
In late March, with COVID on the rise in Michigan and cases starting to rise nationally, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky described her sense of “imminent fatality“On a fourth wave of coronavirus across the United States driven by the Alpha strain. But the increase turned out to be small and short-lived.
Given the expected rate of spread of the Delta variant, and the fact that a dose of vaccine is not enough to provide good protection, it is risky to decide to delay vaccination. “Some of these people will have an unpleasant surprise,” Bob Wachter, president of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told BuzzFeed News.
Low vaccination in the south and in rural areas across the country makes these areas more vulnerable to the Delta variant. “I think there’s a good chance that, in the winter or fall, there will be significant increases and they will almost exclusively affect people who aren’t vaccinated and attack regions with low vaccination rates,” Wachter said.
But it could be difficult to convince people who have so far refused to get vaccinated, given that skepticism seems to be largely driven by entrenched political allegiances. According to one CBS News / YouGov poll published this week, only 52% of Republicans said they were partially or fully vaccinated and 29% said they had no intention of getting vaccinated. Among Democrats, 77% said they were already vaccinated and only 5% said they had no intention of receiving the shots.
Vaccine release data at the county level also show a strong relationship with voting in the 2020 presidential election.
“Somehow we have to break that idea that allegiance to conservatism and the Republican Party has to do with not getting vaccinated,” Hotez said. “It’s really worrying.”