Delta Variant Now Accounts for 83% of US Cases and Back to Mask Wearing, Even for Those Vaccinated!

Carolyn Crist reported that the nation’s top health officials said Tuesday that the Delta variant of the coronavirus is racing through the country and now is responsible for 83% of all U.S. cases.

That’s a massive increase from a week ago, when Delta was seen as responsible for just more than half of new cases, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, told a Senate committee.

And listen to her carefully…is she actually suggesting a Federal Mandate to vaccinate everyone???

“The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 variants is to prevent the spread of disease, and vaccination is the most powerful tool we have,” she said.

Meanwhile, several states in the South are reporting a large increase in COVID-19 cases, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Arkansas, Florida, and Missouri are reporting full-fledged outbreaks, and neighboring states such as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas are following behind.

“4th wave is here,” Thomas Dobbs, MD, the state health officer for Mississippi, wrote on Twitter on Monday.

Dobbs posted a graph of hospitalizations in Mississippi, which showed numbers climbing dramatically in July after hitting a low in May and June.

“Very sad indeed,” he wrote. “Didn’t have to be this way.”

Mississippi reported more than 2,300 new COVID-19 cases over the weekend, which is the state’s largest 3-day increase in cases since February, according to The Associated Press. Mississippi has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country.

Florida has become one of the country’s biggest COVID-19 hot spots, now accounting for a fifth of new infections in the U.S., according to NBC News.

In Jacksonville, UF Health broke its record for hospitalized COVID-19 patients, jumping from 86 patients on Sunday to 126 on Monday.

“We’re gaining cases at such a rapid rate, we don’t really know where it’s going to stop,” Chad Neilsen, the director of infection prevention at UF Health, told NBC News.

“We aren’t even thinking a couple of months,” he said. “We’re thinking what’s going to immediately happen in the next week.”

Hospitals in Arkansas and Missouri are also preparing for a surge of patients that could strain staff and resources again, according to NBC News. If hospitalizations triple in the next 2 weeks, as projected by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), it could feel like the chaotic period at the end of 2020.

“Right now, we’re managing OK, but we’re in surge mode,” Steppe Mette, MD, the CEO of the UAMS Medical Center, told NBC News.

“We’re putting patients in physical locations where we weren’t putting them normally because of that demand,” he said.

At Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas, COIVD-19 hospitalizations have increased by 70% during the last week, according to the Houston Chronicle . On Monday, the hospital had 184 COVID-19 patients, which is double the number it had on July 1.

The Delta variant accounts for about 85% of the cases, and the hospital recorded its first hospitalization with the Lambda variant, the Chronicle reported. The Lambda variant, which was first identified in Peru, has been spreading throughout South America and is now reaching the U.S.

The Delta variant has been “running rampant” among unvaccinated people in Texas, Marc Boom, MD, the CEO of Houston Methodist, wrote in an email to hospital staff. The variant will account for nearly all COVID-19 cases in the area within the coming weeks, he said.

“It is the variant of concern in Houston,” he said. “What we’re seeing now is that Delta is far more infectious.”

Public health officials are grappling with the best way to move forward as cases and hospitalizations continue to rise. Increasing vaccinations is key, but mandating or guilting people into getting a shot would likely backfire, NBC News reported.

“People have heard our messages ad nauseam, but to see patients struggling to breathe and wishing they got vaccinated, that may make a difference,” Mette told the news outlet.

“Those are real people who are getting real sick,” he said.

What Evidence Do We Need to Move Forward With COVID Boosters?

Dr. Vinay Prasad noted that a few weeks ago, on Monday, employees of Pfizer met with high level executives in the Biden administration to discuss the role of boosters — a.k.a. a third vaccination with an mRNA vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. Some have speculated that, as with the first two doses, the emergency use authorization pathway will again be used to market boosters. With the rise of the Delta variant and others, enthusiasm in the media and the Twitter commentariat for boosters is growing. However, there are certain criteria that must be met before we jump on the booster bandwagon. Some of these criteria apply at home, and others apply abroad. What does stand out is that more data, real data, and an evaluation of several factors at home and abroad will be key in moving forward.

Abroad

As a general rule, if your goal is to avoid variants — or mutated versions of a virus — you want the virus to replicate less. When it comes to variants, it doesn’t matter where the virus does the replicating. In a globally connected world, it is only a matter of time before an advantageous mutation finds its way to all parts of the world. As such, we in the U.S., are only as safe as the least safe place in the world.

What this means is that before we shift our manufacturing capacity to develop boosters for the current variants, we must make a real effort to ensure that the vaccines we do have get distributed to the greatest number of global citizens who will take them. I argued in April that, practically, this means that children in high income nations should be vaccinated after older citizens globally – this same logic extends to boosters.

Before we shift our manufacturing to booster production, we should make sure that we have manufactured adequate supplies of the original vaccine for all global citizens. Moreover, we need to put effort toward solving the last mile problem: how to deliver very cold mRNA vaccines to places in the world where it is difficult to deliver and keep things very cold. This is a technological problem well within our scope.

Efforts to manufacture and deliver vaccine boosters to already vaccinated individuals in high-income nations cannot take priority and must not interfere with efforts to vaccinate at-risk individuals around the world. In fact, it is in our best interest to vaccinate those at-risk first. If we pursue boosters in the U.S. without helping the rest of the world, then we might as well get ready for the fourth, fifth, and sixth boosters. We will watch rising death tolls around the world, while worrying that yet new variants may end up on our shores.

At Home

Here in the U.S., there are also metrics that need to be met before we contemplate widespread dosing of hundreds of millions of people with booster shots. Specifically: show me the data! I have no doubt that a third mRNA shot will lead to higher neutralizing antibody titers. For that matter, I would guess six shots would outperform three on that metric. But the burden of evidence to accept boosters is not simply a change in antibody titer — or even demonstration of improved titers for rare variants.

We must show that boosters improve clinical endpoints before we ask Americans to roll up their sleeves again. A large randomized trial of vaccinated individuals powered for reduction in symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 or (better yet) severe COVID-19 is needed to justify the harms and inconvenience of boosters. If such a trial simply cannot be powered, or takes a very long time, due to the sparsity of serious infection in the U.S., then the argument for emergency use authorization is inherently flawed. When there’s too little disease to run the definitive trial, you are, by definition, no longer in an emergency. One way to solve this problem might be to deliver boosters only in elderly individuals or those who are immunocompromised. Here, a trial measuring COVID-19 outcomes may be possible.

Alternatively, a case for boosters can be made if evidence shows that boosters alter the epidemic course for a nation or the globe. Here, too, antibody titers are insufficient. Moreover, ironically, clinical trials would have to be larger and more complex to demonstrate this. For these reasons, I think the burden is on vaccine manufacturers to show that severe COVID-19 outcomes are averted.

Finally, we need to consider the second order effects of boosters. Would we gain more if we took the effort that would go into boosters and instead used it to try to increase vaccination uptake by those who are reluctant to get their first and second dose? Is the mere fact that news outlets and companies report the possible need for boosters a disincentive to be vaccinated? A skeptical person may now no longer see SARS-CoV-2 vaccines as the path out of the pandemic, but a recurring, and possibly someday yearly obligation that they may prefer to avoid altogether. We can’t ignore the potential impact of discussing boosters on vaccine acceptance.

Boosters Without Data

If we accept boosters in the U.S. while the rest of the world remains unvaccinated, and if we authorize them based on inevitable improved laboratory titers without clinical outcomes, we run the risk of creating a medical industrial perpetual motion machine.

We will continue to breed new variants outside of our nation, which will lead to calls for yet more boosters, and we will continue to get new boosters without any evidence they are necessary (i.e., lower severe COVID-19 outcomes). Our arms will ache, our hearts will hurt, our wallets will be empty, and so too will our brains, as we will have abandoned all principles of evidence-based medicine.

Lambda variant of COVID-19 identified at Texas hospital. Is it worse than delta?

Ryan W. Miller reported that a Houston hospital has its first case of the lambda variant of the coronavirus, but public health experts say it remains too soon to tell whether the variant will rise to the same level of concern as the delta variant currently raging across unvaccinated communities in the U.S.

About 83% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are from the delta variant and the vast majority of hospitalizations are among unvaccinated people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The lambda variant, on the other hand, has been identified in less than 700 cases in the U.S. However, the World Health Organization in June called lambda a “variant of interest,” meaning it has genetic changes that affect the virus’ characteristics and has caused significant community spread or clusters of COVID-19 in multiple countries.

Dr. S. Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic biology at Houston Methodist, where the case was identified, said while lambda has some mutations that are similar to other variants that have raised concern, it does not appear to be nearly as transmissible as delta.

“I know there’s great interest in lambda, but I think people really need to be focused on delta,” Long said. “Most importantly, regardless of the variant, our best defense against all these variants is vaccination.

What is the lambda variant and how is it different from the delta variant?

The lambda variant is a specific strain of COVID-19 with specific mutations. It’s one of a handful of variants identified by the WHO as variants of concern or interest. Many other variants have arisen since the outbreak was first detected in late 2019 in central China.

“The natural trajectory of viruses is that they have a tendency to have mutations, and whenever we have a significant mutation that changes the virus … we get a new variant,” said Dr. Abhijit Duggal, a staff ICU physician and director for critical care research for the medical ICU at the Cleveland Clinic.

Some of the lambda mutations occur in its spike protein, which is the part of the virus that helps it penetrate cells in the human body and is also what the vaccines are targeting.

Mutations occurring there and in other parts of lambda are similar to those in variants of concern, like alpha and gamma, Long said. But even gamma, which never took hold in the U.S. to the same level as alpha or delta, has more concerning mutations than lambda, Long said.

Duggal said there hasn’t been anything specific with the lambda variant to spark concern about it becoming the dominant variant in the U.S., but “watchful waiting and being cautious is going to be the most important thing at this point.”

Where was the lambda variant first identified?

The lambda variant was first identified in Peru in December 2020. Since April, more than 80% of sequenced cases in the country have been identified as the lambda variant.

As of June, the WHO said it had identified the lambda variant in 29 countries. Argentina and Chile have also seen rising lambda cases, the WHO said.

However, the variant hasn’t spread nearly to the same level on a global scale as the delta variant. Lambda may have become so widespread in parts of South America largely because of a “founder effect,” Long said, wherein a few cases of the variant first took hold in a densely populated and geographically restricted area and slowly became the primary driver for the spread locally over time.

Long compared lambda to the gamma variant, which first was detected in Brazil and spread in similar ways.

Are COVID-19 vaccines effective against the lambda variant?

Studies have suggested the vaccines currently authorized for use in the U.S. are highly effective at preventing severe COVID-19 and death across multiple variants.

Duggal said while there is no reason to believe the vaccines will be ineffective against the lambda variant, more data is need to know exactly how effective it will be. The efficacy may lower some, but hospitalization may still be largely preventable in variant cases with vaccination, he said.

Remember ‘Nothing in this world is 100%’: Those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can be infected, but serious illness is rare.

However, a new study posted online Tuesday found the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was not as effective at preventing symptomatic disease when faced with the delta and lambda variants. The study was not yet peer reviewed or published in a journal, but it aligned with studies of the AstraZeneca vaccine that conclude one dose of the vaccine is 33% effective against symptomatic disease of the delta variant.

Vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have shown to keep similar levels of effectiveness against several of the variants of concern. But, just announced, a new preprint study conducted by Pfizer-BioNTech found its vaccine efficacy could drop down to 84% within 6 months.

Getting vaccinated still remains the most important factor in stopping the virus’ deadly effects and slowing down new variants, Long said.

Mutations occur in the coronavirus as it spreads from person to person. Vaccination can help prevent symptomatic disease and decrease the spread in communities with high vaccinations rates, which can then prevent mutations from occurring and new variants from arising, Duggal added.

Delta’s threat: CDC reveals data on why masks are important for the vaccinated and unvaccinated

More on the Delta mutated variant, which is becoming a real problem for the un vaccinated portion of our population and why wearing masks are important for all. Adrianna Rodriquez reported that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has had a busy week. 

Only a few days after announcing updated mask guidelines, the agency on Friday released new scientific data on the delta variant that gives a snapshot of how the highly contagious strain triggered a wave of coronavirus cases. 

The much-anticipated report comes a day after a presentation compiled by a doctor with the agency was leaked to the media and detailed the dangers of the delta variant and how mask-wearing is essential to bring it under control.

In a briefing Tuesday, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the new data spurred the agency to take immediate action by recommending fully vaccinated people to wear mask indoors in public settings where coronavirus transmission is high. 

“The delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and be an opportunist in areas where we have not shown a fortified response against it,” she said earlier this week. “This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations.”

Here’s everything to know about the delta variant and how it impacts fully vaccinated people. 

‘Pivotal discovery’: What the new data says about delta variant, transmission 

Fully vaccinated people made up nearly three-quarters of COVID-19 infections that occurred in a Massachusetts town during and after Fourth of July festivities, according to a CDC study published Friday in the agency’s Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report.

Out of 469 cases that were identified in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, from July 3 to 17, the agency found 74% occurred in fully vaccinated people. The CDC sequenced samples taken from 133 patients and discovered 90% were caused by the delta variant. 

“High viral loads suggest an increased risk of transmission and raised concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with delta can transmit the virus,” Walensky said in a statement sent to USA TODAY on Friday. “This finding is concerning and was a pivotal discovery leading to the CDC’s mask recommendation.”

Health officials continue to reiterate the majority of COVID-19 transmission occurs among the unvaccinated, not fully vaccinated people.

“Vaccinated individuals continue to represent a very small amount of transmission occurring around the country,” Walensky said. “We continue to estimate that the risk of breakthrough infection with symptoms upon exposure to the delta variant is reduced by sevenfold. The reduction is twentyfold for hospitalizations and death.” 

Four fully vaccinated people between the ages of 20 and 70 were hospitalized, two of whom had underlying medical conditions. No deaths were reported.  

The study found 79% of patients with breakthrough infection reported symptoms including cough, headache, sore throat, muscle pain, and fever. 

Remember also that: Breakthrough COVID-19 infections after vaccination can lead to long-haul symptoms, Israeli study shows.

Of the 346 breakthrough infections, 56% of people were vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, 38% with Moderna and 7% with Johnson & Johnson. As of Friday, over 190 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine has been administered in the U.S., nearly 140 million of Moderna and 13.3 million of Johnson & Johnson, according to the CDC.

Health experts say the reason why more breakthrough infections occurred in the mRNA vaccines compared to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is because more people in the U.S. received the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. 

“When you look at the data, it may concern some people that there appears to be a higher rate of breakthrough COVID infections in people fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine, however, as a percentage of people who are fully vaccinated, more people have been vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine,” said Dr. Teresa Murray Amato, chair of emergency medicine at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in Queens, New York.

“It still appears that all three of the current vaccines with emergency use administration authorization in the United States are safe and effective against the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus,” she added. 

While study authors say evidence suggests fully vaccinated people exposed to the delta variant can contract and spread the virus, it is not sufficient to determine the vaccines’ effectiveness against the highly contagious strain. 

Delta substantially more contagious than other variants

Although the study didn’t specify if fully vaccinated people can transmit the virus to other fully vaccinated people, health experts say they should wear a mask and socially distance largely to protect those who haven’t been vaccinated or who have a weakened immune system and can’t get full protection from the vaccine. 

“The data makes a pretty compelling justification for why we need to go back to mask wearing and other public health measures,” said Dr. Charles Chiu, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. “I do think it’s because of the delta variant.”

The delta variant is known to be substantially more contagious than other variants – as contagious though deadlier than chicken pox, according to the CDC presentation. Among common infectious diseases, only measles is more contagious.

People may also be infectious for longer with the delta variant, 18 days instead of 13, the presentation says.

Vaccines remain effective at preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19, though they worked better against the original strain and the alpha variant than they do against delta, data finds.

What do the CDC mask guidelines say?

The CDC is urging fully vaccinated Americans to wear masks indoors in areas of high or substantial coronavirus transmission. 

They’re also recommending universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors inside schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, regardless of vaccination status. That aligns closely with guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommended this month that anyone older than 2 be required to wear a mask in school. 

The CDC and the AAP are still urging that children return to full-time in-person learning in the fall.

The goal behind the guidance may be to protect both the fully vaccinated and the unvaccinated, health experts say, especially vaccinated people who may be immunocompromised and children under 12 who aren’t yet eligible to get their shot.

But the reality is there’s hardly any transmission among fully vaccinated people to truly affect community spread, they say.

“It makes sense why they did it, but I don’t think it’s going to make a major difference in the large surge that we’re having,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, Rhode Island. “The real issue still is unvaccinated people who are not going around masked up. I have no reason to think that this guidance will get unvaccinated, unmasked people putting on masks. And that’s what we really need.”

Is there a test for the delta variant?

A traditional PCR test alone cannot differentiate the delta variant from the original virus.

The delta variant has distinctive mutations that serve as biological markers that can only be detected through genome sequencing.

Many U.S. laboratories sequence a small – but nationally representative – number of positive samples for epidemiological purposes. According to the CDC, more than 175,000 sequences have been collected through the agency’s surveillance program since Dec. 20.

People who test positive for COVID-19 aren’t made aware if they were infected by the delta variant, even if their sample was sequenced.

“Our patients will not learn if they have a variant or not,” said Dr. Christina Wojewoda, chair of College of American Pathologists Microbiology Committee. “It is for epidemiology purposes only and currently, there is no medical use for that result.”

However, the CDC said more than 80% of sequenced samples have the delta variant, which means people sick with COVID-19 were most likely infected with the highly contagious strain. 

“It is safe to assume in most places, if you are infected now, it is likely delta,” Wojewoda said. 

‘A Few Mutations Away’: The Threat of a
Vaccine-Proof Variant

Damian McNamara noted something that concerns me if we don’t get control of the virus using the best weapon that we have, vaccinations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, made a dire prediction during a media briefing this week that, if we weren’t already living within the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, would sound more like a pitch for a movie about a dystopian future.

“For the amount of virus circulating in this country right now largely among unvaccinated people, the largest concern that we in public health and science are worried about is that the virus…[becomes] a very transmissible virus that has the potential to evade our vaccines in terms of how it protects us from severe disease and death,” Walensky told reporters on Tuesday. 

A new, more elusive variant could be “just a few mutations away,” she said.

We are already reporting the lambda variant and I predict that next will be the gamma and then the kapa variant.

“That’s a very prescient comment,” Lewis Nelson, MD, professor and clinical chair of emergency medicine and chief of the Division of Medical Toxicology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, told Medscape Medical News.

“We’ve gone through a few mutations already that have been named, and each one of them gets a little more transmissible,” he said. “That’s normal, natural selection and what you would expect to happen as viruses mutate from one strain to another.”

“What we’ve mostly seen this virus do is evolve to become more infectious,” said Stuart Ray, MD, when also asked to comment. “That is the remarkable feature of Delta — that it is so infectious.”

He said that the SARS-CoV-2 has evolved largely as expected, at least so far. “The potential for this virus to mutate has been something that has been a concern from early on.”

“The viral evolution is a bit like a ticking clock. The more we allow infections to occur, the more likely changes will occur. When we have lots of people infected, we give more chances to the virus to diversify and then adapt to selective pressures,” said Ray, vice-chair of medicine for data integrity and analytics and professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

“The problem is if the virus changes in such a way that the spike protein — which the antibodies from the vaccine are directed against — are no longer effective at binding and destroying the virus, and the virus escapes immune surveillance,” Nelson said.

If this occurs, he added, “we will have an ineffective vaccine, essentially. And we’ll be back to where we were last March with a brand-new disease.”

Technology to the Rescue?

The flexibility of mRNA vaccines is one potential solution. These vaccines could be more easily and quickly adapted to respond to a new, more vaccine-elusive variant.

“That’s absolutely reassuring,” Nelson said. For example, if a mutation changes the spike protein and vaccines no longer recognize it, a manufacturer could identify the new protein and incorporate that in a new mRNA vaccine.

“The problem is that some people are not taking the current vaccine,” he added. “I’m not sure what is going to make them take the next vaccine.”

When asked how likely a new strain of SARS-CoV-2 could emerge that gets around vaccine protection, Nelson said, “I think [what] we’ve learned so far there is no way to predict anything” about this pandemic.

“The best way to prevent the virus from mutating is to prevent hosts, people, from getting sick with it,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important people should get immunized and wear masks.”

Both Nelson and Ray pointed out that it is in the best interest of the virus to evolve to be more transmissible and spread to more people. In contrast, a virus that causes people to get so sick that they isolate or die, thus halting transmission, works against viruses surviving evolutionarily.

Some viruses also mutate to become milder over time, but that has not been the case with SARS-CoV-2, Ray said.

Mutations are not the only concern!

Viruses have another mechanism that produces new strains, and it works even more quickly than mutations. Recombination, as it’s known, can occur when a person is infected with two different strains of the same virus. If the two versions enter the same cell, the viruses can swap genetic material and produce a third, altogether different strain.

Recombination has already been seen with influenza strains, where H and N genetic segments are swapped to yield H1N1, H1N2, and H3N2 versions of the flu, for example.

“In the early days of SARS-CoV-2 there was so little diversity that recombination did not matter,” Ray said. However, there are now distinct lineages of the virus circulating globally. If two of these lineages swap segments “this would make a very new viral sequence in one step without having to mutate to gain those differences.”

“The more diverse the strains that are circulating, the bigger a possibility this is,” Ray said.

Protected, for Now

Walensky’s sober warning came at the same time the CDC released new guidance calling for the wearing of masks indoors in schools and in any location in the country where COVID-19 cases surpass 50 people per 100,000, also known as substantial or high transmission areas.

On a positive note, Walensky said: “Right now, fortunately, we are not there. The vaccines operate really well in protecting us from severe disease and death.”

Records have been set nearly every day lately in Tokyo, but not all of them have been by athletes competing in the Olympics.

Japan’s capital has exceeded 4,000 coronavirus infections for the first time — 4,058 cases, to be exact. That’s a record high and nearly four times as many cases were reported just a week ago.

Tokyo set new case records every day from Monday to Wednesday, experiencing just a slight dip on Thursday, when they totaled 3,300 — still one of the city’s highest daily counts on record.

So, those of you, your friends, associates who haven’t been vaccinated, your best protection is still getting vaccinated.

Just do it, get vaccinated!

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