One cannot open a newspaper, turn on a TV, or scroll through an online news feed without hearing about Covid-19’s new Delta variant. While the variant is cause for concern among unvaccinated Americans and in many foreign countries, it shouldn’t make us reconsider our approach to the virus at this stage in the reopening process.
Delta is a variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. It was first identified in India more than six months ago and has spread to 100 plus countries, having become the dominant variant in many, including the United States. It is 60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha, or U.K., variant, which previously predominated in the U.S. and was itself 50 percent more transmissible than the original viral strain from China. This has led to increased infections both here and worldwide.
But the bump in infections is nearly entirely among the unvaccinated. The authorized Covid-19 vaccines appear to be effective against Delta. And Delta is not clearly more dangerous than earlier variants: the average Covid-19 case with Delta is no more likely to lead to severe disease, hospitalization, or death than cases with other variants. Despite rising numbers of U.S. Delta cases, hospitalizations in July have risen only minimally, while Covid-19 deaths have remained flat.
The accumulating evidence shows that the authorized vaccines are highly effective at lessening transmission for all variants—including Delta. In the rare cases where vaccinated people become infected, their disease is mild and they pose a lower risk of transmitting the virus to others than do unvaccinated people.
Thankfully, 59 percent of American adults are fully vaccinated. Sixty-eight percent have received at least one dose, which provides them some protection, though not as much as the complete regimen. The news is even better for the most vulnerable population: those 65 and older. Nearly 80 percent have been fully vaccinated and nearly 90 percent received at least one dose.
While younger people remain unvaccinated—authorization was only recently approved for those age 12 and up—Covid-19 is rarely a severe disease for people under 18. Deaths in those 18 and younger account for only one-tenth of 1 percent of Covid-19 deaths. Deaths below age 12 are practically unheard of. In fact, severe disease in people under 50 is rare unless they have comorbidities.
Despite this good news, pockets of concern do exist. Nine southern states, along with Wyoming and Idaho, significantly lag the nation in vaccination rates. Moreover, even well-vaccinated states have localized communities with large numbers of unvaccinated people.
But none of this indicates that we need to change current policies. While some countries and a few localities here have re-imposed mask mandates, travel restrictions, and other precautions—even for vaccinated people—these actions are generally not warranted in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky recently declared that vaccinated people need not wear masks, since vaccines are effective against all the variants circulating here—including Delta. The same is likely true for people with natural immunity after recovery from an earlier Covid-19 infection, who appear to be protected for at least a year. (Of course, non-immune people in vulnerable groups should continue to be cautious, continuing distancing efforts when possible.)
Delta should also not affect plans to reopen schools for in-person learning. The CDC recently updated its recommendations for schools. For the first time, the agency acknowledged “the importance of offering in-person learning, regardless of whether all of the prevention strategies can be implemented at the school.” The CDC did not make an exception for Delta, nor should it. Children and schools have not been a source of community spread at any point in the pandemic, even before the availability of vaccines.
Increasing vaccinations continues to be a priority, especially where vaccination rates are low. All the variants, including the highly transmissible Delta, pose a risk to those who lack immunity. While we have achieved high vaccination rates, particularly among the vulnerable elderly, a small share of younger people remains at risk of severe disease. A Scottish study found a higher risk of hospitalization with Delta infections than with earlier variants in young people, but the danger was concentrated in those with five or more relevant comorbidities.
Localized Covid-19 outbreaks in areas with low vaccination rates remain a possibility here., Other countries struggling with their vaccine rollouts have been hit hard. But in the U.S., any rise in cases will likely occur among young people, most of whom are at low risk of severe illness and death. We should continue on our current path: relaxing public-health restrictions, encouraging vaccinations, protecting vulnerable populations—and returning to normal.
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