A highly transmissible coronavirus variant first identified in India in December has continued to spread through the U.S., causing some health officials to worry about a virus resurgence — particularly in places with low vaccination rates.
The delta variant arrived in the U.S. in March and is now one of the most common strains in the country. It has been detected in more than 80 countries, and in all 50 states. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, recently called the variant the “greatest threat” to ending the pandemic in the United States.
Alaska health officials say they’re starting to see an uptick in cases of the delta variant being identified around the state, and although vaccination continues to be a highly effective defense, some Alaskans — including those who are higher risk or live in congregate settings — may want to consider some additional precautions.
Why is the delta variant causing particular worry among epidemiologists?
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the delta variant to be a “variant of concern” because there’s strong evidence of its increased transmissibility, explained Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist.
There’s also some emerging data that indicates the variant is more virulent than other strains, which means that it has a higher likelihood of causing more severe illness, he said.
A study out of Scotland found that the hospitalization rate for patients with the delta variant was about 85% higher than that of people with the B.1.1.7. variant that was first identified in Britain.
How prevalent is the variant in Alaska?
Alaska’s first delta case was identified in late May. Since then, there have been a total of 37 cases of the variant identified in the state via sequencing efforts, McLaughlin said.
That makes delta the third-most common variant of concern in Alaska: There have been 363 cases of the B 1.1.7. variant and 60 cases of the P.1 variant sequenced so far. But that could change soon, McLaughlin said.
“The incidence of the delta variant is increasing such that I think it will soon become the predominant circulating variant in Alaska, as well as in the United States,” he said.
Since June 13, the delta variant has also represented about 40% of cases sequenced since June 13. Most have occurred in Anchorage, but some have been reported in Southeast, Mat-Su, Fairbanks and elsewhere, McLaughlin said.
How protected from this variant are people who have been vaccinated?
Data shows that the three widely available vaccines appear to be highly effective against the delta variant, McLaughlin said. The CDC also issued a statement last week saying that people who are fully vaccinated are protected from all the variants currently circulating in the country.
McLaughlin added that it’s important to know that some data showed the vaccine efficacy was substantially lower for those who only got one dose of the mRNA vaccine — only about 33%, he said.
“So it’s really important for folks to get both doses of the vaccine if they’re going to get one of the mRNA vaccines,” he said.
Should vaccinated Alaskans consider taking additional precautions to protect against this variant, and if so, what should they do?
However, McLaughlin said he and other Alaska health experts continue to follow national guidance from the CDC that says masks are not needed in most situations if you’re fully vaccinated, even when you’re indoors.
“However, some people may want to choose the extra protection that masks provide, especially if they live with somebody who is unvaccinated, such as children under the age of 12, or if they’re immunocompromised, or are at high risk for severe illness from COVID 19 for other reasons, like underlying medical conditions,” or if “they live in a community with a low overall vaccination rate and moderate to high community transmission,” McLaughlin said.
That recommendation has been echoed by the CDC.