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COVID-19 Delta Variant Taking Over, Filling ICU Beds

The COVID delta variant is twice as contagious as the alpha variant and makes up 83 percent of COVID cases. Many of the new cases are coming from Mississippi, Arkansas, Nevada and Florida, and infecting younger adults.

Two people wearing facemasks sitting on the New York Subway.
The United States has seen a rapid shift in the variant strain of the COVID-19 virus from Alpha, the previous variant, to the delta strain, which makes up 83 percent of COVID-19 cases now, the CDC said today in a report on CNN.

The delta strain is hitting the unvaccinated, mostly in younger Americans and particularly in Mississippi, Arkansas, Nevada and Florida. The infection is highest in people aged 15 to 45, with the number of people being hospitalized and placed in intensive care units increasing.

The variant is thought to be twice as contagious as the alpha strain, as evidenced by the number of delta cases jumping from 50 percent of all infections on July 3 to 83 percent today.

“That means that this is the most fit virus that is spreading more effectively and that it is spreading in pockets that are unvaccinated and causing a lot of disease and stress,” said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah School of Medicine, in a media call with the Infectious Diseases Society of America last week.

“Everyone wants this to be over, and a lot of what’s driving this spread is people wanting it to be over and acting as if it's over, and really abandoning even the more modest precautions like mask wearing,” Pavia said.

Health-care professionals are again feeling the effects of another surge of sick patients. “Our medical providers — nurses and doctors in the ICU — are burned out,” Pavia said. “We’ve had a lot of nurses leaving the profession nationally, and a lot of professionals are just at the end of their rope in terms of going in and taking care of another large number of people who are critically ill or dying.”

Pavia called Utah a microcosm of the country in terms of how the disease is affecting citizens, both vaccinated and nonvaccinated, as well as health-care professionals. The state had seen, as of last week, a threefold increase in the number of COVID-19 cases and the number of hospitalizations doubled.

So far, the national death rate has remained at under 200 a day and that may be for a couple of reasons. One being that deaths usually trail hospitalizations by a couple of weeks, and also the population the most affected by the new strain is the younger, healthier people. But in Utah, ICUs are operating at or above 100 percent capacity.

“We have pockets of very high vaccination, such as Salt Lake City, where some 70 to 75 percent of people are fully vaccinated, and areas where less than 30 percent have received their first dose,” Pavia said.

Also on the call with the Infectious Diseases Society of America, Dr. Jay Butler, director of infectious diseases at the CDC, said that after a decline in COVID-19 cases to around 2,000 per day, the U.S. is seeing about 15,000 cases a day over the last several weeks.

Although the delta variant is much more contagious than the alpha variant, there isn’t enough data yet to understand if it’s more severe. The data so far, however, indicate that fully vaccinated people are well-protected against delta.

“We’re seeing some breakthrough infections in people who are vaccinated, but we’re not seeing evidence that earlier vaccinations during the early availability is driving that,” Butler said. “We’re not seeing evidence at this point with waning immunity in people who were vaccinated in December and January.”