COVID-19 Resources

Delta Variant: Why It’s a Threat and Risks to Consider for Mass Gatherings

Aug. 19, 2021

With indoor gatherings and large public events, we still recommend caution.

Carl J. Fichtenbaum, MD, warned there could be grave consequences from the resurgence of COVID-19 in Greater Cincinnati.

“The delta variant poses a significant threat to our community,” said Dr. Fichtenbaum. He has been on the front lines of COVID-19 research from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic as a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and a UC Health physician.

“It is concerning to me because there are a lot of people living in the Cincinnati area who’ve yet to be infected with COVID-19, have not been vaccinated and have zero protection from this new delta variant.”

What’s different about the delta variant?

The delta variant caused major devastation as it rapidly spread through India in late 2020. It was first detected in the U.S. in March 2021 and quickly became the dominant strain causing new infections, especially among the unvaccinated.

Dr. Fichtenbaum and other researchers note troubling differences in the delta variant that make it a greater health risk than previous forms of COVID-19 as people gather in larger groups for major events, in restaurants, and as teachers and students return to school.

“The concerning part with this delta variant is it is 50% more contagious,” Dr. Fichtenbaum said. “It spreads particularly among younger people. We’re finding that people get sicker with this variant when you compare it to the original virus.”

Changes in the genetic code are what make the delta variant so much more dangerous. Those mutations allow it to make faster and tighter connections to host cells. That faster connection supercharges the delta variant’s ability to reproduce and spread from one person to another.

Science continues to point to vaccination as the fastest way to bring the pandemic to an end and prevent the risk of future coronavirus mutations that could be worse than the delta variant.

“We could face further mutation because if the virus continues to circulate and affects some of our most vulnerable people, those who have immune disorders and may be infected for a prolonged period of time, that’s when the virus changes itself and adapts,” Dr. Fichtenbaum said.

COVID-19 vaccines proving effective against the delta variant

Research shows the three vaccines granted an emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—those made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson—all provide a strong defense against all the COVID-19 variants, including the delta variant.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that so-called “breakthrough infections” among those vaccinated against COVID-19 are possible, but those infections are generally milder than those in people who are unvaccinated—greatly reducing the risk of hospitalization and death.

“The extensive data from around the world prove the vaccines work. They save lives and reduce the risk of serious illness and hospitalization,” Richard P. Lofgren, MD, president and CEO of UC Health, said at a news conference announcing that hospitals in Greater Cincinnati will unite to vaccinate all employees against COVID-19.

“The development of the COVID-19 vaccines has been a remarkable feat of science and collaboration. The safety and efficacy are truly extraordinary,” Dr. Lofgren said.

Practicing safety in the community

Doctors and public health officials are recommending face coverings for fully vaccinated people in counties with substantial or high transmission to put a physical barrier between you and the coronavirus, because of the possibility of transmitting the delta variant.

The CDC continues to recommend unvaccinated people ages 2 and older wear a face-covering in indoor public places, regardless of the level of county transmission.

They are also recommending outdoor events for large gatherings.

“Gathering outside is one of the safest ways to have fun since viruses have a harder time spreading in well-ventilated spaces,” said Laura Schuster, CIC, project manager for Infection Prevention at UC Health.

“Respiratory illnesses are primarily spread through droplets created when we cough, sneeze, laugh and talk. When we are outside in the constantly moving fresh air, these droplets are dispersed, overall reducing the risk of being exposed to infectious droplets.”

As students return to the classroom, Dr. Fichtenbaum stresses the importance of in-person learning for child development and socialization, but also recommends following established best practices for limiting the spread of the coronavirus in schools.

“I would recommend masks, handwashing and as much social distancing as we can do in schools because many children are not going to be immunized or protected, and we need to protect the safety of our children and those who work around children,” Dr. Fichtenbaum said. “When vaccines become available to them, I think every school child should get vaccinated.”

How to protect yourself, your family and your friends

You can still enjoy time with others more safely by following science-backed guidelines.

  • Wear a mask: It was the must-have accessory of 2020. Masks are still important now to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Masks need to fully cover your nose and mouth with no air leaks around the edges. Choose a mask with at least two layers of fabric for the best protection.
  • Social distancing: You know a concept is trending when it shows up in pop culture, just like the song “Six Feet Apart” by country star Luke Combs. Yes, staying 6 feet apart is a science-backed approach to COVID-19 prevention.

That’s because the respiratory droplets that carry the virus tend to drop within 6 feet. Stay about two arms lengths away from other people, and you are less likely to be exposed to airborne droplets carried by talking, breathing, coughing and sneezing.

  • Avoid poorly ventilated spaces: Outdoor events pose less risk than indoor events because fresh air is more readily available. If you are attending an indoor event, open windows and doors when possible to allow fresh air to circulate more freely.
  • Limit the number of people and duration of the event: Being around someone who has COVID-19 for more than 15 cumulative minutes without masking and social distancing greatly increases the chances for transmission. The more people you have at your event over longer periods of time, the more likely your chances for exposure.
  • Get vaccinated! The single best way you can prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19 is to get vaccinated! The technology used to create the vaccines has been developed by scientists over decades. Their research has allowed vaccine development to get shorter and shorter while providing safe, long-lasting protection.

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