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Questions and Answers to Help You Understand the Delta Variant

All viruses mutate over time but the emergence of the delta variant of COVID-19 is alarming health officials worldwide.

The delta variant, also called the ‘Fastest and Fittest’ of the COVID-19 Mutations, is a mutated version of original COVID-19. It was first identified in India in December 2020 and quickly became the dominant strain. It was detected in the United States in March and has spread shockingly fast.

Here’s a closer look at the variant and why health officials are imploring people to take it seriously and to get vaccinated.

Q: Why is it cause for concern?

A: The delta variant is more contagious, making it capable of spreading faster. The World Health Organization called it “the fastest and the fittest.” That means it has the ability to accelerate the pandemic, especially among people who aren’t vaccinated.

In the United Kingdom, for example, it was first detected in February. Following months of lockdowns and a strong vaccination campaign, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths had plunged. The U.K. planned to fully reopen on June 22. But delta triggered a third wave, pushing the reopening back four weeks.

Q: How common and widespread is delta in the United States?

A: The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told a U.S. Senate committee this week it accounts for an estimated 83% of new COVID-19 cases — a dramatic increase since the week of July 3, when it accounted for about 50%.

Q: What about Pennsylvania?

A: According to the CDC, delta hasn’t been especially prevalent in Pennsylvania. As of about a week ago, it was accounting for 5.3% of new cases. That’s far less than in Missouri, for example, where it was accounting for nearly 75% of cases. It was accounting for 29% of new cases in New Jersey, 19% in New York and 6% in Ohio.

At Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, however, the delta variant accounted for 10 of 14 positive test results last week, a spokesperson said.

Q: How fast does delta spread?

A: Yale Medicine put it this way: In a situation where no one was vaccinated or using preventions such as facemasks, each person infected with the original COVID-19 strain would infect 2.5 others. Someone infected with the delta variant would infect 3.5 to 4 others.

Q: Does delta make people sicker?

A: Maybe, maybe not. One study cited by Yale Medicine found the delta variant was more likely to put an unvaccinated person in the hospital. But other studies have found no significant difference, according to Yale Medicine.

Q: What does the delta variant mean for children?

A: Yale Medicine pointed to a study from the United Kingdom, which found children and adults younger than 50 were 2.5 times more likely to get infected with the delta variant. That’s ominous, since no vaccine in the U.S. has so far been approved for children younger than 12. A Yale Medicine doctor said, “Delta seems to be impacting younger age groups more than previous variants.”

Some data and studies suggest delta is more likely to hospitalize younger people. Still, children so far account for only a tiny number of severe COVID-19 illnesses and deaths. But the fact that delta spreads faster, combined with the fact children under 12 still lack access to vaccine, means it poses a new threat for children. That threat is one of the reasons the American Academy of Pediatrics this week recommended face masks for school students if they are older than 2, even for those children who are vaccinated.

Q: Does COVID-19 vaccine work against the delta variant?

A: UPMC recently cited a study, which concluded Pfizer vaccine is 96% effective in preventing hospitalization from the delta variant. There is less data regarding the other vaccines, although all have shown success against variants in general.

Q: Why is it called delta?

A: SARS-CoV-2 is a scientific name for COVID-19. Variants were given names such as B.1.1.7. In order to make discussing variants easier for regular people, the World Health Organization recently began using the Greek alphabet — Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta — to name variants.

Q: What is the “delta plus” variant?

A: Delta plus is a mutated version of delta. Some health officials in India have expressed worry delta plus is more contagious. It has been detected in more than 10 other countries, including the United States. But there have been relatively few cases so far, and it’s still unknown whether it’s more contagious than delta or other variants.

Q: What’s the plan for dealing with delta?

A: Since vaccination has proven so effective at preventing severe COVID-19 illness and death, some experts say COVID-19 has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated.

Experts also commonly paint the situation as a race between getting enough people vaccinated and the spread of strains such as delta. Vaccination not only prevents people from getting severely ill, it reduces the opportunity for COVID-19 to infect people and mutate. Some parts of the country have far lower rates of vaccination. There’s worry delta will rage in those areas. That could bleed over and spell trouble for other areas with higher vaccination rates, since some people can’t be vaccinated because of health reasons, or vaccination has limited benefit because they have a weak immune system, or they’re not eligible for vaccine because of their age. Plus, vaccine isn’t 100% effective, which means a higher prevalence of delta increases their risk.