Created: July 02, 2021 11:18 PM
With the July 4th weekend underway, many Minnesotans are already celebrating.
But with a more open holiday, and all those expected family gatherings, there are growing COVID concerns about the Delta variant.
The Centers for Disease Control says that variant now makes up a quarter of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., and has been detected in all fifty states.
“We are still in the climbing phase of the Delta variant,” says Dr. Abraham Jacob, an M Health Fairview physician. “I think we expect the Delta variant to be the predominant variant by the end of July or the beginning of August. There is a short window of time for people to get vaccinated to protect them from this new wave.”
All that --- happening during a holiday weekend expected to be much busier than during last year’s pandemic restrictions.
“This virus has won every single time we thought we had beat it,” says KSTP medical expert Dr. Archelle Georgiou. “As a physician, it’s much easier to comment on whether this variant is going to spread, and it will.”
"I think it would be really unfortunate if unwittingly, people started spreading the Delta variant at these kind of large gatherings we're going to experience this weekend,” Jacob adds.
The CDC says ‘Delta’ now accounts for more than 25% of new coronavirus cases in the U.S., and 50% in the Midwest and the mountain states.
In Minnesota, the health department has identified 73 Delta variant cases.
26 of those have been discovered since mid-June. Two people have died.
"Just four weeks ago, it was at a four percent penetration rate,” Georgiou says. “Within a week it went to 10%. Within a few days it went to 14%. Now it's at 25%, because the virus duplicates and spreads with exponential growth."
"This virus is an opportunist and in areas where we still have rates of low vaccination, that is where the virus is likely to take hold,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky explains.
Data from MDH this week shows about 64% of Minnesotans — sixteen and older are now fully vaccinated, and about 52% of the total population.
And we’ve seen vaccination rates go down.
Jacob says human behavior is the most important factor in whether people will get vaccinated.
“Now what we’re encountering is what we call ‘vaccine apathy,’” he says. “They just don't care or don't feel like it impacts them, because they have other priorities in their life. Typically, it's the younger population, and they're working full time, have school."
There’s two big reasons why the Delta variant is getting so much attention.
Georgiou says firstly — it’s more infectious and riskier for people who are unvaccinated.
“If you're unvaccinated, frankly, I think you're a target for the new variant,” she says. “It is two-and-a-half times more infectious than the original COVID strain that we're familiar with, and it may cause more serious illness. We're not sure, but it may.”
Secondly, Georgiou says --- it’s too early to know how well COVID vaccines work against Delta.
Public Health England researchers found the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines were 88% effective after two doses, and 33% effective after one dose.
Johnson and Johnson announced Friday it's data shows its vaccine works against the Delta variant.
The company says it conducted blood tests on eight participants that triggered a strong immune response.
But the numbers on the available vaccines depend on the study.
"Even if you're vaccinated, while you're better than if you were unvaccinated, it doesn't mean that you are not susceptible to it,” Georgiou says. “We just don't know how effective the vaccine is against the Delta variant."
"The good news is that being fully vaccinated protects you from the worst case scenario, which is getting hospitalized and death,” Jacob says.
But why is this variant so contagious?
Scientists say the genetic mutation in the Delta variant enables its spike protein to better penetrate into lung cells, binding them together.
That cell-to-cell fusion allows the virus to spread faster in infected people, and partially hide from the body’s immune system.
"This variant is that much more efficient probably through an unlocking mechanism about how it gets into the human cell,” Georgiou explains. “It just unlocks the door and gets into human cells and infects our cells much more easily."
With the Delta variant threat, LA County in Southern California, is recommending mask-wearing indoors even for those fully vaccinated.
The World Health Organization is making a similar recommendation.
But the CDC says nothing has changed from its advisory last May, telling fully vaccinated Americans they no longer need to wear masks indoors.
We asked Georgiou if she thinks face masks will make a return in Minnesota.
“We still see covid being at low levels in Minnesota, hospitalizations and deaths are low and going down,” she says. “If those statistics maintain, are stable, I don't think that we're going to see masks come back."
Georgiou says there are three situations for masking up inside.
"One, if you're unvaccinated as an adult. Two, if your immune compromised, even if you're vaccinated. And three, if you're a child, or parent of a child that is unvaccinated,” she notes. “If you face those three situations, I think it would be smart to mask up inside."
MDH says right now, there are no plans to change the current recommendation for masks; that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear them.
But the health department says it’s critical with the presence of variants like Delta, that more people get vaccinated, so Minnesotans don’t have to go back to wearing masks.
And what about all those holiday gatherings this weekend?
Jacob says the safest idea is to hold events outdoors.
"For those who are unvaccinated around people who are vaccinated, ideally, if you can be outdoors, it's going to be a nice weekend, so it's more likely you can be outdoors,” he says. “That is the lowest risk.”
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