With the Delta variant causing COVID-19 cases to rise in the United States, health care professionals are continuing to urge Americans to get their COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, more than 99-percent of all deaths from COVID-19 infections are in unvaccinated persons.
“The vaccine does exactly what it should, which is minimize the symptoms, prevent you from getting hospitalized, prevent you from getting sick, and prevent you from dying,” said Andrew Jameson, MD, FACP, division chief of Infectious Diseases and regional medical director of Infection Control at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s.
Initial data is showing that mRNA vaccines are still protective against the Delta variant, so getting your COVID-19 vaccine can help prevent infection and severe illness. The COVID-19 vaccine reduces the risk for hospitalization and death by over 95-percent.
“Think of a vaccine as a way for your immune system to practice for a virus. Vaccines give the body a preview of one or more key features of a virus before you get the actual virus,” said Liberty Jacques, DNP, director of Nursing Practice and Development for Mercy Health Saint Mary’s and the director of Infection Prevention and COVID-19 service line. “Due to the vaccine, the immune system develops a ‘memory’ of how to react and stop the virus once you are exposed to it. The immune system can quickly recognize the actual coronaviruses and interfere with its ability to multiply.”
A variant is a strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. There are currently 11 variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that the World Health Organization (WHO) is monitoring. When a virus is widely circulating in a population and causing many infections, the likelihood of the virus mutating increases. The more opportunities a virus has to spread, the more it copies – and the more opportunities it has to undergo changes. Most viral mutations have little to no impact on the virus’s ability to cause infections and disease. However, depending on where the changes are located in the virus’s genetic material, they may affect a virus’s properties, such as transmission (for example, it may spread more or less easily) or severity (it may cause more or less severe disease).
The Delta variant is more transmissible and has one-thousand times more viral load than other variants, meaning it is more infectious and causes harsher sickness. The time between exposure and developing symptoms is also much quicker with the Delta variant.
“This pandemic is not over. Delta is more contagious than any other variant so far,” said Claudia Jarrin, MD, medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at Mercy Health Muskegon. “The most important weapon we have against COVID is vaccination.”
While getting the COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t guarantee immunity against the variant, it can lessen affects. Those fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine have 88-percent protection against symptomatic COVID-19 and 95-percent protection against hospitalization and death. Initial reports show Moderna is equally as protective against the Delta variant. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine appears 66-percent protective against the Delta variant.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) now confirms that 90-percent of new cases in Michigan are the Delta variant. Mercy Health Muskegon’s COVID-19 positivity rate has doubled from 1.3-percent in June to 3.8-percent in July. Officials expect the numbers to continue to rise.
“Any time we have a case where someone was vaccinated and tests positive for COVID, we always send that out and the state and county health department test that,” said Dr. Jameson. “We send off specimens regularly to see what’s circulating in the community. There is Delta circulating and that’s not terribly surprising. This virus has the ability to transmit faster, better and more effectively, and when it starts reaching a community it will take over.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reinstated mask mandates and is continuing to urge vaccinations even as some studies show vaccinated individuals can spread COVID-19.
“This risk is down dramatically to transmit the virus even though it is not zero after vaccination,” said Dr. Jameson. “The big safety increase comes when we are at a much lower chance of getting COVID in the first place.”
Health care professionals are already seeing numbers rise week by week, and that’s why hot spots in the south – where there are lower vaccination rates – are seeing more COVID-19 infections, hospital admittances, and death.
“The places getting hit bad are those that have lower vaccine percentages than we do,” said Dr. Jameson. “Another reason cases are rising in the south at a higher pace than the north is because, as it gets hot outside, people go inside to the air conditioning. We’re not at that same pace yet but we will have cases go up and we will see people getting sick and dying. It is brutal because there’s a safe, effective vaccine to prevent that.”