The pandemic is not over.
In fact, experts say they fear residents in several states across the U.S., including Alabama, have helped the disease continue to spread by refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
Experts are predicting a surge in cases in states like Alabama where vaccination rates hover around 33 percent making them the expected epicenter of future outbreaks.
The number of cases in Alabama has increased by 159 percent in the last 14 days, averaging 472 new cases per day. Hospitalizations have also increased by about 30 percent.
Of those numbers the much-discussed Delta variant accounts for roughly 21 percent of cases, however, experts warn that the number could be higher.
While COVID-19 can be detected through a nasal swab in a matter of minutes, determining the variant of the disease requires lengthier gene testing and not every positive sample is sent through that process.
Dr. Daren Scroggie, associate program director internal medicine residency at Thomas Hospital, said there are about 22 different variants of COVID-19 active in Mobile and Baldwin counties, including the Delta variant.
Viruses spread by copying themselves. While they are effective at this process, they are also sloppy and often make mistakes, Scroggie said.
As a result, viruses often create copies of themselves which are errors, otherwise known as variants. Some variants are harmless. Others are more deadly than the original disease.
The more a virus is allowed to copy itself, the more opportunities it has to create a more deadly version of itself in a variant.
That is what has happened with COVID-19. The most concerning variants (VOC) are identified by Greek letters: Alpha (B.1.1.7), Beta (B.1.351) Gamma (P.1/Brazil) and now Delta (B1.617.2).
“Each of these variants has acquired mutations that increase transmission of that variant versus the original viral strain and result in more rapid spread,” Scroggie said.
He explained that small changes can have enormous consequences.
“For instance, changing one amino acid can make the virus bind to its receptor more easily and cause infection. Other variants can cause the amount of virus expressed to be higher, which increases the transmission,” he said.
For the moment, none of the discovered variants are resistant to the immunity created by the COVID-19 vaccine. Meaning vaccinated individuals are at a much lower risk of infection and those who do catch the variant typically experience less severe sickness.
With enough time and mutations however, a variant could develop that is able to evade that immunity rendering the vaccine worthless.
Currently the states with lower vaccination rates are experiencing outbreaks among those unvaccinated populations.
“The U.S. is at about 58 percent of adults vaccinated with at least one dose, 49 percent fully vaccinated while Alabama is at 40 percent one dose and 33 percent fully vaccinated, which is near the lowest rate in the U.S. Missouri and Arkansas are in the throes of serious outbreaks and have about 45 percent of their population with one dose and 33 percent with both,” Scroggie said.
Scroggie said it is never too late to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and it is the number one way to stop the pandemic.
“Now that Delta is wide-spread, it will take some time for us to build up enough immunity to slow its spread through the unvaccinated population,” he said. “The sooner we get more people vaccinated the smaller the outbreak will be.”
Stopping the outbreak will also stop the virus from continuing to mutate putting a stop to potential, more deadly variants.
“It is difficult to know how the virus will mutate over time,” Scroggie said. “It may become an episodic flaring virus like the flu but the tragedy is that we could have gotten this under control with the available vaccines, and still can.”
Gulf Coast Media spoke with Dr. Daren Scroggie, associate program director internal medicine residency at Thomas Hospital, about the COVID-19 Delta variant and the recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
Here are his answers to the most frequently asked questions about the variant:
Is Alabama experiencing a surge in cases?
Yes. Scroggie said, “the number of cases in Alabama has increased by 159 percent in the last 14 days, averaging 472 new cases per day. Hospitalizations have also increased by about 30 percent. “
Will the COVID-19 vaccine protect me from the Delta variant?
Most likely, yes. Scroggie said, “The vast majority of vaccinated individuals do not become symptomatically infected if exposed to any variant of the virus.”
Is the Delta variant more deadly?
Not necessarily. “None of the viral variants including Delta are any more deadly than the wild strain and the case fatality rate appears to be lower, 1.9 percent for Alpha and 0.2 percent for Delta,” Scroggie said.
Can you catch more than one strain of COVID-19 at the same time?
“Probably not, though at any given time a given person would have mutations occurring within their body and could have more than one variant. If you got exposed to both virus variants close together in time, the Delta would outcompete the Alpha and be the dominant variant anyhow,” Scroggie said.
Do we need to mask if we’re unvaccinated?
“Yes. The unvaccinated, unmasked younger person is the most likely to spread the virus, especially if asymptomatic. Masking would protect others from catching that infection,” he said.
Do we need to mask if we’re vaccinated?
“Probably, especially in high-risk situations where you could be exposed to very high viral concentration that could overwhelm your immunity,” Scroggie said. “In most outdoor or small group settings you probably do not need to mask. In a crowded room, you probably should.”
If we are vaccinated can still carry the vaccine to other non-vaccinated people?
Yes. Scroggie said, “If you are vaccinated, you can still transmit the virus even if you aren’t symptomatic and neutralize it quickly. Masking reduced the chances that you would transmit it to others.”
Are children more at risk with the new variant?
“We are of course seeing more cases in all unvaccinated populations which by definition includes children under 12. However, the risk of serious infections, hospitalization or death in this age group is much lower,” Scroggie said. “So the ‘danger’ is relatively low, though the likelihood of developing and transmitting the infection is higher. 18 to 39-year-olds have the highest number of infections though most of those are asymptomatic.”
What about school? Should they wear masks in schools? Do we need to homeschool again this year?
“There is no one right answer,” Scroggie said. “Since teachers are vaccinated their risks are lower but having a lot of children spreading infection is concerning. Especially if they spread it among more vulnerable family members. If this wave is contained and vaccination rates go up, I doubt we will need to homeschool.”
When can children under 12 can have the vaccine?
Scroggie said that testing is underway in children ages 6 months to 12 years. “Given the low rate of symptoms and the differences in how children deal with vaccines, it may take longer to get definitive results and approval. Hopefully, they will be approved by the September or October for ages 5 years to 12 and by the end of the year for younger kids,” he said.
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