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Delta variant questions answered

August 16, 2021

Guy Kochvar, M.D.

The delta variant of COVID-19 is a new concern for our community. NCH is a reliable source of scientific information to help keep you and your family safe. Our thanks to Guy Kochvar, M.D., and Anooj Shah, PharmD, M.B.A., for answering our questions.

NCH is vaccinating ages 12 and older at our Immediate Care Center locations in Buffalo Grove, Schaumburg, Kildeer and Harper College. Walk-ins are welcome at these locations. The Mount Prospect Immediate Care location requires an appointment. Call 847-618-0242 with any questions or to make an appointment.

Q: What makes the delta variant different from previous variants that caused COVID-19?

A: In comparison to the alpha variant, which emerged in the United Kingdom in late 2020, the delta variant has several mutations that make it more dangerous. A recent study showed people infected with delta had viral levels approximately 1000 times higher than individuals infected with the original coronavirus strain. It is 50% more contagious than alpha and at least twice as contagious as the original COVID-19 strain, with an incubation period of four days rather than six, meaning people are contagious earlier. Preliminary studies also suggest that it may lead to more severe disease in the unvaccinated population. Additionally, delta is resistant to some antibody treatments previously used to treat patients.  

Q: Can you get sick from the delta variant if you are fully vaccinated?

A: Even if you are fully vaccinated, you can still become infected with any strain of COVID-19 since the vaccines are not 100% effective. A greater number of “breakthrough” infections have occurred with the delta variant after vaccination, although symptoms are generally less severe and recovery quicker. Overall, vaccination provides excellent protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death. A study has shown the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be 88% effective against the delta variant in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 and 96% effective in preventing hospitalization or death. Although some studies have shown 39-64% effectiveness for preventing symptomatic illness against delta, effectiveness against hospitalization remained high at approximately 90%.

Q: What are the symptoms of COVID-19 caused by the delta variant?

A: Symptoms caused by the delta variant are similar to those with other strains, but fever, headache, sore throat and runny nose appear to be more common while cough and loss of smell and taste may be less so. Symptoms may be milder in those who are fully vaccinated.

Q: Will a COVID test show whether you have the delta variant or not?

A: Standard tests used to diagnose COVID-19 do not identify the delta variant, which can only be determined through genetic sequencing; this is being coordinated by the CDC with state and local health departments, commercial labs and universities. Delta has accounted for over 80% of the variants tested currently in the U.S. and suburban Cook County.

Q: Have fully vaccinated people still died of COVID-19?

A: Yes, fully vaccinated people may still develop COVID-19 and die, as the vaccine is not 100% protective. However, the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths that will be prevented among vaccinated persons will far exceed the number of vaccine breakthrough cases. An analysis of breakthrough infections reported to the CDC through April 30, 2021 showed an estimated four deaths per one million vaccinated persons, compared to 1,806 deaths per one million unvaccinated persons.

Q: Is there an uptick in COVID-19 cases in our community?

A: Yes, cases are rapidly rising locally and nationally. Cook County has seen an average of 820 cases per day, a 96% increase from the average at the end of July. The U.S. is averaging more than seven times as many cases a day as it was at the beginning of July and surpassed 100,000 for the first time since February 2021 with a majority of cases occurring in areas with low vaccination rates. A recent review by the Kaiser Family Foundation of data from official states sources of all 50 states and Washington D.C. showed that persons not fully vaccinated accounted for 95%–99.9% of those hospitalized with COVID-19.

Q: Will there be more variants in the future?

A: Yes, viruses naturally acquire mutations over time and new variants will continue to emerge as long as there is moderate to high transmission. The more infections we have in our community and throughout the world, the greater the chance of new variants arising that can become more transmissible and more resistant to current vaccines and monoclonal antibody therapies. Vaccination is our best weapon at controlling this pandemic and remains our number one priority to reduce transmission and reduce the risk of emerging variants.

Q: Why is the CDC recommending that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors again?

A: Early data have shown that in those with delta breakthrough infections, the levels of virus in the nose and throat are similar to levels seen in the unvaccinated. This suggests that fully vaccinated people with COVID-19 could transmit the delta variant to others as easily as those who are unvaccinated. Additional studies are ongoing. On July 27 the CDC updated its masking recommendation to ensure the vaccinated public would not unknowingly transmit delta to others, including the unvaccinated or immunocompromised.

Q: Will vaccinated people need boosters in the future?

A: There is good evidence showing that immunocompromised patients and the elderly may benefit from a thrree-dose series to mount a stronger immune response. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recently gave preliminary support for COVID-19 boosters in moderate to severe immunocompromised patients but said they were waiting for FDA regulatory action before making a formal recommendation. Israel, France, Germany and the UK have approved booster doses for immunocompromised patients and the elderly.

According to Dr. Kochvar, “The most important thing that we all can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones is to get vaccinated. The vaccines have been shown to be both safe and highly effective. A great deal of misinformation has been spread about their safety and benefits. Please reach out to your healthcare provider with any questions regarding the vaccine.”

Additional information regarding the safety and efficacy of the vaccines can be found on the CDC’s website.