Much has been written about the COVID pandemic over the past year. And though we have come a long way since full-scale societal shutdown, we’re again bracing for the next wave of battle with this disease. COVID numbers have been incrementally rising globally over the past few months as we are seeing cases climb due to the Delta variant. So what are variants and what does that mean for us now?
To answer some questions you may have, the following is from our Medical Director, Dr. Suneet Singh.
Q: First of all, what is a COVID variant?
A: Each Coronavirus carries around 30,000 letters of RNA. That’s right… 30,000! And it’s this genetic information that allows COVID to enter the body and cause mass havoc within the cells. As these infected cells replicate, sometimes mistakes happen and all 30,000 letters aren’t replicated perfectly. And, by definition, an imperfection is a variant.
Q: Are variants bad?
A: Variants happen with every disease. We expect to see variants! You know how we’re constantly trying to predict what version of the flu will come each year? This is because viruses change as time goes by. So first we get a variant, and if the variant is strong enough to survive, it will function similarly to its origin but demonstrate some differences as well. It is at this point that we can call the variant a “strain.” So are variants and strains bad? Well, we expect them to happen. So while they’re not necessarily “bad,” some variants are harder to understand (and treat) than others, which can make eradicating a virus more challenging.
Q: How many COVID variants are there?
A: The exact number of variants haven’t been released, but fortunately the number itself has no bearing on our current situation or what needs to be done going forward. We have been monitoring several variants, though, since the onset of the pandemic.
Q: What is special about the Delta variant?
A: The Delta variant represents the most contagious strain of COVID to date. Not only is it very contagious, but the incidence of severe respiratory disease has been higher compared to past strains in the unvaccinated population (more on this later). Unfortunately, children also appear to be more susceptible to this strain of COVID compared to past variants.
Q: Does the COVID vaccine work against the Delta variant?
A: The good news is that the answer is a resounding yes. The vast majority of new cases around the world are in the unvaccinated population. In cases where vaccinated individuals contract COVID (called breakthrough cases), the disease course tends to be very mild and more akin to symptoms resembling the common cold. It is extremely unlikely for a vaccinated person who contracts COVID to have a severe case (i.e. develop a need for the hospital).
Q: Who is most at-risk for contracting the Delta variant?
A: As noted above, far and away, the most susceptible population are those who are unvaccinated. In addition, the high-risk populations for breakthrough cases are people with Diabetes, Heart Disease, Kidney Disease, or Lung Disease. In addition, the high-risk age demographic is > 65 years. At CareHive, we also recommend that people remain cognizant of their own individual risk factors with special attention to any existing circumstances that may weaken their immune system.
Q: What does this mean going forward?
A: First and foremost, we advise vaccinating against COVID if you have access to receive the vaccine. For those who are already vaccinated, there is a strong chance that the FDA will approve a booster dose later this year. Everyone should keep it up with hand hygiene. We have made such progress this past year reducing other communicable diseases and adherence to basic principles of hand hygiene are absolutely part of this success. Along the same line, masking also continues to be beneficial in helping to contain disease. Everyone, especially those most susceptible to the Delta variant, should avoid mass gatherings when possible. And finally, if you have respiratory symptoms, please obtain a COVID test. The result determines the next steps of therapy including when you are safe to be around others.
Dr. Suneet Singh // Medical Director, CareHive