Unvaccinated communities could see a spike in COVID-19 cases this fall as the delta variant makes its way through the U.S. Already, areas with lower percentages of vaccinated people are starting to see a rise in cases. Many Americans are asking themselves whether they should put their masks back on. (The answer is potentially yes.)
Dr. Charity Dean, CEO of the Public Health Company, which offers a public health data platform for disease prevention, and former assistant director of the California Department of Public Health, says the delta variant is on a fast track to becoming the predominant strain in the U.S., like it is in the U.K.
“Undervaccinated regions in the U.S. are very likely going to be hit with case surges in the coming weeks,” she says. “The good news: Because there are relatively high vaccination rates in older age groups, the hospitalizations/deaths will not be as great as previous surges.”
The variant is as much as 60% more transmissible than the initial form of COVID-19 and is believed to have an increased risk of hospitalization for those infected with it. “That applies exclusively to people who are unvaccinated,” says Dr. Vivek Cherian, an internal medicine physician affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System. So far, vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca have proven to still be fairly effective against the delta variant. This week, Moderna released lab results that show its vaccine appeared to produce enough neutralizing antibodies to fight the delta variant. Even if a fully vaccinated person were to get infected with the delta variant, the chance of severe infection or hospitalization is extremely low. The real risk is for those who have not been vaccinated, including children.
Some experts suggest that we’ll see cases rise again in the fall as people move back indoors, to their offices, and into schools. Not quite half of all Americans have received both doses of the vaccine, although almost 80% of people over 65 have. Public health experts like Cherian believe that while the number of cases and hospitalizations will be substantially lower this year, they expect to see a proportional spike in cases, especially in regions with a large number of unvaccinated people.
There is also some concern about spread in schools with the delta variant. Though schools have not been hot spots for COVID-19 infection, children can still contract and transmit the disease. The Pfizer vaccine has been authorized for emergency use under the Food and Drug Administration for children 12-15 and so far more than 3 million have been vaccinated. The company is currently seeking emergency use for kids over the age of 5. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children aged 5-17 comprise less than 10% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. However, when there are a high number of cases in a community, COVID-19 is more likely to spread in schools. That puts regions where vaccination thresholds are low at increased risk of the delta variant. Some areas, such as Houston, are already seeing a rise in cases among kids.
In order to prevent yet another wave of COVID-19 cases and other new variants, health experts are pleading with the public to get vaccinated. “We want to get as many people vaccinated in the shortest period of time as possible,” says Cherian.”The longer we delay that, you increase the chance—worst-case scenario—this mutates into something else, or you get a completely different variant that our vaccines are much less effective against or completely ineffective against.”