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The Delta variant is the fourth known mutation of the COVID-19 virus. Like any mutated virus or bacteria, each strain of the COVID-19 virus behaves a little differently than the others. While data on the variant are still being analyzed, it appears to spread more easily than the other variants and may cause more severe disease in people who have not been vaccinated.
All forms of the current vaccine offer protection against severe COVID-19 infection from all strains of the virus. While you may still catch the Delta mutated virus if you are vaccinated, you will be more protected against getting hospitalized or dying.
However, more than one-third of the U.S. population is not vaccinated, so the virus continues to spread. As long as spreading continues, the virus will keep mutating. Future, stronger mutations may necessitate tweaking of the vaccine—just like we do with the flu vaccine each season.
The cycle can be stopped.
We can stop this cycle, just like we have with other nefarious diseases in the past, such as polio, measles, chickenpox, and diphtheria. All it will take is more people age 12 and older getting the free vaccine.
The Mid-Atlantic has, so far, avoided a spike in Delta variant infections. Our communities have been highly receptive overall to getting vaccinated. However, the south and central U.S. are seeing continuously increasing numbers.
As we say in the world of infectious disease medicine, an outbreak is just a plane ride away. Exposure to a spreading, mutating virus can cause a new wave of illness in our vaccinated and unvaccinated populations. Even people who have had COVID-19 should get vaccinated so as not to spread the Delta variant to others.
The COVID-19 vaccine is proven safe and effective. If you or a loved one have been on the fence about getting vaccinated, now is the time to do it. I’ve laid out some data-driven points on some of the more common concerns we’ve heard from patients about the vaccine.
1. Why is the CDC recommending masks for the vaccinated?
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, guidance has changed as new data becomes available. The re-recommendation of wearing masks is one of those instances—and it’s the right thing to do. Though we are over a year into the pandemic, the virus is still relatively new and we are still learning about it.
However, we know that certain safety protocols work, including masking, social distancing, and getting vaccinated. It’s like the safety elements of a car: the brakes, seatbelt, airbag offer multiple levels of cumulative protection:
- Vaccines are like the airbag: You get it, and it stays with you, protecting you behind the scenes.
- Masking is like the seatbelt: You have to remember to put it on, but when you do, it adds an extra layer of protection for yourself and others near you.
- Social distancing is like following traffic signals: If everyone plays it safe, we will all be safer.
The #COVID19 #vaccine is like your car’s airbag. It protects you behind the scenes. Masks are like seatbelts—wear them for extra protection, for yourself and others. – Glenn Wortmann, MD: https://bit.ly/3lnKhMH.
2. Will I need a COVID-19 booster shot?
Pfizer released a small study in which they suggest that a third “booster” shot of the vaccine may increase the antibodies developed as part of the recommended vaccine schedule. The size of the study was too small to recommend booster shots as of now.
MedStar Health follows the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Protocols (ACIP), which is the organization that recommends vaccinations. ACIP’s national guideline remains the same as it has been since the vaccines were released: two doses of the MRNA-technology vaccines (Moderna or Pfizer) or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. If these recommendations change, ours likely will as well.
3. Why do students need to wear masks at school?
Children who get COVID-19 tend to have very low rates of hospitalization or death. Severe illness, including multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), is rare. So, the goal of masking is not necessarily protecting kids from each other. It is largely to protect their classmates’ families, as well as school staff and their families.
4. How many more mutations will there be?
Unfortunately, as long as a large population of people remain unvaccinated, the virus can continue to mutate. We cannot predict what the specific mutations will be or how many, but similar to the flu, the more the virus spreads, the more it will mutate and potentially grow stronger.
This frustrating situation is not unique to COVID-19. Any virus that is not properly controlled can mutate to become resistant to medication. For example, if a patient with HIV is prescribed three medications but only takes one of them regularly, their virus may mutate to become resistant to that medication.
The best chance we have to avoid future, strong mutations is to get more of the population vaccinated against COVID-19.
5. What should immunocompromised people do now?
Patients with chronic and immunocompromising conditions are at increased risk of severe COVID-19 infection. However, these patients do not have a robust immune system that the vaccine can “train” to handle the virus. So, it will be less effective for them, making it even more important for everyone around them to get vaccinated.
The vaccine provides some protection and is highly recommended—along with continued masking—for patients who have chronic conditions such as:
- Heart or lung disease
- A bone marrow or organ transplant
- Multiple sclerosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Type 2 diabetes
A few closing thoughts.
People are understandably tired of the virus and its restrictions. And after the euphoria of the release of the vaccines and some of the subsequent lessening of certain restrictions, taking a step backwards can be frustrating.
Here is the bottom line. The vaccines, social distancing, and masking are proven safe and effective. COVID-19 and all its variants are proven deadly, contagious, and capable of mutating. If a large population of U.S. patients choose to remain unvaccinated, the virus likely will ping-pong around the country growing stronger.
The vaccine remains our best hope to defeat COVID-19 once and for all. I can’t stress this enough. If you still have not received your vaccine, please make a plan to get vaccinated today. It’s easy and it’s free. And most importantly, it will help protect you and your community.