The delta variant is infecting more people with the coronavirus than ever before and changing the guidelines for staying safe during the pandemic.
Experts say this COVID-19 variant is behaving much differently than the strain that took hold last year and is much easier to pass from person to person.
It has hit Florida especially hard. In early August, the state had one out of every five COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths in the country.
The best remaining solution, public health experts say, is to convince people to get their free COVID-19 vaccines, which have proven safe and effective at preventing infection and serious illness.
Still, as new coronavirus infections arise, both vaccinated and unvaccinated people need to take precautions, experts say. And vaccinated people should be aware that while they’re protected, they could still spread the virus.
Got questions about the fourth wave? Here are some answers.
What is a variant?
A variant is a naturally occurring mutant of a virus that adapts to new hosts in order to survive and thrive. The original strain of COVID-19 arose in Wuhan, China in 2019. Since then, a number of new strains have been discovered. The delta variant — also referred to as B.1.617.2 — was first detected in India in December.
How many Florida COVID-19 cases are caused by the delta variant?
Not every COVID-19 test is analyzed to determine which strain of the virus caused the infection. Instead, a sampling of positive cases undergoes genomic sequencing to determine which strain is present. Among those samples, the vast majority have detected the delta variant. It is now the dominant strain in the U.S., accounting for over 80 percent of cases nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Is the delta variant more contagious than previous strains of COVID-19?
Yes. “The key feature of the delta variant is that it’s more transmissible,” said University of South Florida immunologist and virologist Michael Teng. It can cause more than twice as many infections as previous strains, according to the CDC, as infected individuals expel more of the virus into the air through sneezing, coughing and talking.
Is the delta variant deadlier than previous strains of COVID-19?
This is not yet known, but some evidence suggests it causes more hospitalizations. Younger people are being hospitalized at higher rates since the delta variant emerged. But there’s another factor at work: About 95 percent of those hospitalized are unvaccinated.
Do vaccines protect against the delta variant?
The vaccines remain effective at preventing infection and serious illness. Scientists have been tracking the vaccines’ ability to protect against the delta variant in the United Kingdom, Canada and Israel. The two-dose vaccines — Pfizer and Moderna — are the most effective against the delta variant. There is less data on Johnson & Johnson’s effectiveness, but it still offers protection.
“Vaccines work in several different ways,” said University of Florida epidemiologist Thomas Hladish. The COVID-19 vaccines protect against infection, hospitalization and death. But the biggest benefit of being vaccinated, Hladish said, is that while vaccinated people may still become infected with COVID-19 — what’s called a breakthrough case — they are far less likely to fall seriously ill.
The CDC says 50.2 percent of the total U.S. population is fully vaccinated, but the unvaccinated make up the majority of infections. Children 11 and under are not yet eligible to receive vaccines.
You are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after your second dose of Pfizer or Moderna, or two weeks following your single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
How safe are vaccines?
All three vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — were approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration.
The CDC says more than 346 million vaccine doses have been given in the U.S. The vaccines were evaluated during clinical trials involving tens of thousands of participants. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were made using established mRNA technology.
Serious side effects are rare. Pain and swelling on the arm where you received your shot is a common side effect as well as a headache, tiredness, chills and a low-grade fever in the few days following vaccination as your body develops antibodies.
There is no evidence that vaccines, including against COVID-19, impact fertility. The CDC strongly recommends women who are pregnant or breastfeeding get vaccinated.
Where can I get vaccinated?
Depending on your eligibility, you can be vaccinated at a retail pharmacy, local health department office or at your doctor. Health care workers may be vaccinated at local hospitals. A list of locations can be found using Florida’s Vaccine Locator.
Can my employer require me to get vaccinated?
Yes. The federal government has given businesses the right to require proof you’ve been vaccinated. While DeSantis opposes vaccine mandates, he says it’s okay for private employers to do so.
While the number of employers requiring vaccines is growing as the delta variant spreads, they must make accommodations for employees who cannot be vaccinated due to disability or for religious reasons.
Does asking whether I’m vaccinated violate HIPAA?
No. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 — often referred to as HIPAA — does not typically apply to employee records, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The law only applies to healthcare providers — doctors, hospitals, insurers — and bars them from disclosing private medical information.
Employees may decide if they wish to share their vaccination status with their employer.
Is the delta variant responsible for most breakthrough cases among the vaccinated?
Yes. Because the variant is the dominant strain of the virus, it is responsible for the vast majority of COVID-19 cases regardless of vaccination status, said Teng, the USF immunologist. Still, he said, “breakthrough cases are less likely to happen than infection in unvaccinated people.”
Can vaccinated folks transmit COVID-19 and/or the delta variant?
Yes, if they are symptomatic. It is unclear whether individuals who are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic can transmit the virus.
However, vaccinated individuals are much less likely to transmit it than those who are unvaccinated.
Vaccinated and unvaccinated people who become infected with the coronavirus have equal viral loads, Teng said, but it is unclear how much of the virus is infectious because that has yet to be tested. In the vaccinated, the viral load decreases much more rapidly than among unvaccinated people, meaning the time period during which they could transmit the virus is shorter.
What should a vaccinated person who contracts COVID do?
If you’re vaccinated and have been around someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 or suspects they might, get tested three to five days after being in contact with them. Wear a mask in public settings for 14 days after contact or until you receive a negative test.
A vaccinated person who tests positive should isolate for 10 days following their positive test regardless of symptoms.
What should an unvaccinated person who contracts COVID do?
If you are unvaccinated and have come into close contact with someone who has COVID-19, you should quarantine at home for 14 days following exposure. Watch for symptoms of coronavirus infection, such as a fever or chills, coughing and difficulty breathing, fatigue or muscle pain, headaches and losing your sense of taste or smell.
If you test positive and have no symptoms, you can stop quarantining 10 days after your test. If you test positive and experience symptoms, you can resume contact with others 10 days after your symptoms first appeared, 24 hours after your fever disappears (without taking fever-reducing medication) and other symptoms improve, according to the CDC.
If severe symptoms arise, seek the help of a medical professional.
Will I know if I have the delta variant or another strain of COVID?
No. Individual COVID tests are not analyzed to determine which strain caused infection.
If I was already infected by COVID-19, how vulnerable am I to contracting the delta variant?
If you recovered from COVID-19 and didn’t get vaccinated, you are still vulnerable to being infected and falling seriously ill to the delta variant.
“When you were infected before, you were most likely infected with a different variant and that immunity wanes over time,” said University of Florida epidemiologist Cindy Prins. Getting vaccinated 90 days after natural infection will boost immunity as COVID-19 antibodies decrease.
As the delta variant permeates the state, people who have been previously infected are contracting the virus again, Prins said. “It’s incredibly important to get vaccinated.”
Who should wear masks to slow the spread?
Every person who wears a mask in indoor spaces — regardless of their vaccination status — reduces the likelihood of transmission.
The latest CDC guidelines recommend even fully vaccinated people wear a mask indoors if they are in an area of high transmission. Every county in Florida is designated as an area with high viral transmission rates, according to the CDC.
How effectively will double masking protect me from COVID-19?
The most important thing is to make sure your mask is a good fit, meaning all air is being filtered through — as opposed to coming in from around — your mask. Wearing two masks serves as an added layer of filtration, experts say.
Masks with good fit and filtration reduce the number of particles you come into contact with, potentially impacting severity of illness if you are exposed to the coronavirus and how rapidly you get sick.
Does the 6-foot rule apply to the delta variant?
Maintaining physical distance between yourself and others while the more transmissible delta variant is spreading remains a good practice, especially around those whose vaccination status is unknown.
Because the virus is airborne, it’s important to avoid crowded spaces and wear a mask indoors.
Can vaccinated and unvaccinated people gather safely?
“I would certainly be cautious right now,” said Prins of UF, who recommends postponing large social events. If you must gather, do so outdoors, wear masks and practice physical distancing.
Should I be getting tested for COVID-19 regularly now that the variant has emerged?
“If you’re symptomatic, getting tested is a great idea,” Teng said. However, if you’re vaccinated, it may not be necessary to get tested for COVID-19 infection if you do not have symptoms and you were not exposed to someone who has the virus.
If you know you’ve been exposed, you should contact your local health department and get tested three to five days after the exposure took place.
Where can I get tested?
To find a location near you, use Florida’s Testing Locator.
What should I do if I’m immunocompromised and I can’t get vaccinated?
Experts recommend wearing a mask, maintaining distance from others and avoiding large crowds.
“Try to live in a bubble,” Hladish said. The immunocompromised are reliant on others to protect them. Hladish said they “have to hope that their family members and loved ones are willing to get vaccinated.”
How many cases of “long COVID” are resulting from the delta variant compared to previous strains?
It’s too early to tell. “Long COVID” — or the long-term lingering physical, mental or neurological symptoms resulting from COVID-19 infection — is not yet being studied in a systematic way, said Teng, making it hard to gather information about why it happens and why some people are more susceptible to developing it than others.
In addition to the delta variant, are other variants being found?
The World Health Organization has a list of variants. Some are labeled “variants of concern” — such as the delta, alpha and beta — meaning there’s been a significant increase in their transmissibility or decrease in the effectiveness of public health measures to slow the spread. Others are “variants of interest,” meaning scientists are monitoring their development closely.
Said Teng: “As long as the virus is out there, we’re going to get more variants.”
Are there any trends in age, race or gender among those infected by the delta variant?
“The virus doesn’t really discriminate. It doesn’t care whether you’re male or female. What race you are,” Teng said. An increasing number of young people have been hospitalized due to infection as the delta variant spreads, however. Those age groups also are less protected, lagging the vaccination rates of Floridians 65 and older.
Where is the latest online data about COVID-19?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: cdc.gov/coronavirus
The American Association of Pediatrics: aap.org
The Florida Department of Health: floridahealthcovid19.gov
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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage
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VACCINES: The best way to stay safe from COVID-19 is to get vaccinated. Here’s a primer on the coronavirus vaccines.
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