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Sorting through the mixed messaging on COVID-19 variants: Are things getting worse?

Posted by Neha De

July 28, 2021    |     4-minute read (1105 words)

Life seems to be returning to normal in the U.S. Crowds are being seen at bars, restaurants and shopping malls; weddings and other celebrations are being attended; and vacations are being planned. In fact, the Fourth of July weekend was celebrated with much more enthusiasm than it was a year ago.  

Several states in the U.S. have started to lift “shelter in place” and “stay at home” restrictions as vaccination rates have gone up, even though health officials have warned against easing restrictions too soon, as that could bring new outbreaks. 

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated people could go without masks in most indoor and outdoor settings, as per an article on CNBC. This led to many states relaxing mask requirements for those who are fully vaccinated.

The rules, however, vary by state, county and even city. For instance, in Colorado, restrictions on large indoor and outdoor gatherings were lifted at the end of May. Colorado’s COVID-19 public health order mandates masks “for anyone 12 and older who is not vaccinated or not fully vaccinated in settings such as schools, child care centers, camps, Colorado Department of Motor Vehicle offices, prisons, jails and health care facilities,” according to the Coloradoan

Whereas, Vermont lifted all COVID-19 restrictions after becoming the first American state to have 80% of its eligible population get one dose of the vaccine, as per Forbes.

What about the many variants that have been lurking around?

It’s a known fact that viruses continually change through mutation. When a virus mutates more than once, the new mutations are called variants of the original virus. From the U.S. perspective, several variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 are causing concern — and getting a ton of media coverage. These variants are: 

  1. Alpha: This variant made an appearance in England in September 2020 and drove a winter surge in cases that sent the country back into lockdown in January this year. The alpha variant was reported as the dominant strain in the U.S. in April, according to the CDC. This COVID-19 variant initially appeared to spread more easily as compared to previously circulating variants.
  2. Lambda: This variant of the coronavirus was first identified in Peru in August 2020. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Lambda carries a number of mutations with suspected phenotypic implications, such as a potential increased transmissibility or possible increased resistance to neutralizing antibodies. However, there is currently limited evidence on the full extent of the impact associated with these genomic changes, and further robust studies into the phenotypic impacts are needed to better understand the impact on countermeasures and to control the spread.” 
  3. Delta: This variant is now the most common, as well as the most worrisome, COVID-19 variant in the U.S. In fact, Delta makes up 83% of new coronavirus cases in the U.S., as reported by CNN. First reported in India in late 2020, the variant has now spread to more than 124 countries and caused explosive outbreaks in places with low vaccination rates. The Delta variant spreads more easily than any other identified variant to date. It is 60% more transmissible than the alpha variant, which was about 50% more transmissible than the first Wuhan strain. “It’s a super spreader variant; that is worrisome,” says Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California.
How well do the vaccines protect against these new variants? 

With several COVID-19 variants emerging across the globe, both vaccinated and unvaccinated people across the world have been wondering how much protection various vaccines offer against strains like the the highly transmissible Delta variant and how effective they are.

Preliminary research says that, so far, at least for COVID-related hospitalization, and in the case of severe illness or death, several of the available vaccines are slowing the Delta variant’s most dire consequences, if with somewhat less efficacy than against other strains.

One study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that “two doses of Pfizer's shot was 88% effective at preventing symptomatic disease from the delta variant, compared to 93.7% against the alpha variant.” The same study also showed that, “two shots of AstraZeneca vaccine were 67% effective against the Delta variant, and 74.5% effective against the Alpha variant.”

Additionally, according to Dr. Eric Topol, available data from several nations shows that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 96% effective in preventing coronavirus-related hospitalizations and deaths from Delta variant infections. 

As per the data released by Johnson & Johnson, the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is 85% effective at preventing severe disease caused by the Delta variant.

The bottom line is for those who are fully vaccinated, the overall risk of hospitalization and death due to coronavirus is much lower than those who are unvaccinated with similar risk factors. 

Should the fully vaccinated continue to wear masks? 

With new mutations being discovered every few weeks, many scientists and health experts now believe that COVID-19 will continue to create havoc around the world for at least the next few years, and will require all countries to put in place public health measures, including mandates on wearing masks as well as lockdowns and “stay at home” orders, on an ad hoc basis for the foreseeable future. 

Recently, health authorities in Asia, Australia and South Africa reintroduced curfews or other measures to curb rising delta outbreaks. After Japan declared a state of emergency amid rising COVID-19 cases in the country, organizers of the Olympics banned spectators from the games in Tokyo.

In the U.S., even though warm summer months and high vaccination rates have bought the country some extra time, outbreaks across the world are giving Americans a preview of what to expect this fall season. 

And, although research has shown that most COVID-19 vaccines are extremely effective against all the known variants of the coronavirus and the CDC has announced that fully vaccinated individuals, in most situations, no longer need to wear a mask, certain physicians and communities are urging a return to masking. 

Additionally, since many people in the U.S. (and in the rest of the world) are still opposed to getting the shot, one study showed that almost 4 in 10 Americans have not changed their mask-wearing habits despite CDC’s announcement, due to concerns about another possible surge in cases if enough people do not get vaccinated.

Disclaimer: All available information is still rather preliminary. Ongoing monitoring of new infections will have to go on for many months before scientists can achieve more certainty.

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