The news is good when it comes to coronavirus in Michigan and most of the U.S. — as case rates continue to fall, the percentage of positive tests drops to the lowest point since the start of the pandemic and hospitalizations and deaths from the virus dwindle.
The country is headed for a “bright summer. Prayerfully, a summer of joy,” President Joe Biden said at a Friday news conference. But he said he is still concerned about people who haven’t been vaccinated and their risk as a more contagious — and potentially more deadly — variant gains a bigger foothold in the U.S.
Called the delta variant, this strain originated in India and swept through that nation in April and May, causing a massive surge in cases and thousands of deaths. Since then, it has spread to more than 80 countries, including the U.S., and pushed the United Kingdom to extend coronavirus restrictions as case rates climbed.
“It’s kind of been the story of the pandemic that there’s always a surprise around the corner,” said Joshua Petrie, an assistant research professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.
The following are answers to some of the biggest questions about the delta variant, how many cases have been detected in Michigan and why this strain matters.
Why are people concerned about the delta variant?
It’s possibly the most contagious variant to be identified so far in the pandemic.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention elevated the delta strain to a variant of concern last week, noting that this mutation of the virus spreads easily and also doesn’t appear to respond as well to monoclonal antibody treatments, and it may be more severe and result in higher rates of hospitalization.
Dr. Michael J. Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Programme, warned during a news conference Monday that the delta variant is a real threat to vulnerable people around the world.
“This particular delta variant is faster,” Ryan said. “It is better. It will pick off the more vulnerable more efficiently than previous variants. And therefore if there are vulnerable people left without vaccination, they remain even at further risk.
“All of these viruses have been lethal in their own regard. This virus has the potential to be more lethal because it’s more efficient in the way it transmits between humans and it will eventually find those vulnerable individuals who will become severely ill, have to be hospitalized and potentially die.”
The key in preventing another statewide surge or pockets of outbreaks of the delta variant is getting people vaccinated, Petrie told the Free Press.
“The degree to how pocketed it is will be driven by overall (vaccine) coverage within a state,” he said. “So, if the state has very high coverage, there probably will be pockets of outbreaks. If it’s low coverage overall, there may be kind of bigger statewide outbreaks like we’ve experienced throughout the pandemic.”
Michigan, where about 61% of residents 16 and older have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, is “generally better off than a lot of states,” Petrie said. “But still, there’s definitely room for improvement.
“We know that the vaccines work well against the Delta strain. So the best thing we can do to prevent these outbreaks is getting vaccinated.”
Is the delta variant in Michigan?
Yes. As of Monday, 25 cases of the delta variant have been identified in five Michigan counties — Wayne, Livingston, Oakland, Lapeer and Calhoun — since May 9, said Lynn Sutfin, a spokesperson for the state health department.
However, of those 25 cases, 11 were identified among out-of-state individuals who were tested in Michigan, she said.
It’s difficult to have a true, real-time picture of how prevalent the strain is in the state because only a small number of coronavirus test samples undergo whole genome sequencing to determine whether they’re variant cases, she said. It takes as long as a week to complete the sequencing process for each test.
“We only have information for the subset of COVID cases which undergo sequencing,” Sutfin said. “During the last month, we have not seen a large increase in the B.1.617.2 cases reported … since the first identifications.”
How transmissible is the delta variant?
It is extremely contagious.
Michigan was walloped in the spring by the B.1.1.7 variant, now known as the alpha variant, which was identified in the U.K. That strain was considered 50% more transmissible than other previous strains of the virus, and led to a statewide surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
The delta variant appears to be even more contagious than the alpha strain. A study by Public Health England suggests delta is 60% more transmissible than alpha.
“But I think some of the things that may be somewhat reassuring is that even with the B.1.1.7 outbreak or surge that we had in the spring here, we didn’t have the level of death that we did with previous surges, and I would attribute most of that to the high vaccination coverage in older adults,” Petrie said.
“And I think that’s been kind of consistent with what they’ve seen in the U.K. so far, too. It is that even though they’re getting another pretty big surge right now, they’re not seeing the level of death that they had previously. So that might be one bright spot.”
How prevalent is the delta variant in the US?
All indications are that the delta variant is beginning to take off across the nation, said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Last week, he told “Face the Nation” that the delta variant accounted for 10% of all U.S. coronavirus cases, and its prevalence is doubling every two weeks.
It could become the dominant strain of the virus nationally within one to two months, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday on “Good Morning America.”
Do the vaccines work against the delta variant?
Yes. Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a news conference earlier this month that new research suggests that two weeks after the Pfizer vaccine is fully administered, it’s about 88% effective against the delta strain.
Fauci cautioned, however, that a single dose doesn’t appear to offer as much protection. Three weeks after a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine, the study showed it was about 33% effective in preventing sympomatic COVID-19.
It underscored, he said, that it’s vital that Americans show up for second-dose appointments of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.
What about the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine? Does it protect against the delta variant?
Gottleib said the one-dose J&J vaccine appears to be about 60% effective against the delta strain.
“Even with the previous variants, the mRNA vaccines with two doses had better effectiveness than the Johnson & Johnson, but Johnson & Johnson still had pretty decent protection and it was definitely a lot, lot better than being unvaccinated,” Petrie said.
Who is most vulnerable to the delta variant?
People who are not vaccinated:These are the most vulnerable.
“The data is clear: If you are unvaccinated, you’re at risk of getting seriously ill or dying or spreading it,” Biden said Friday. “People getting seriously ill and being hospitalized due to COVID-19 are those who have not been fully vaccinated. The new variant will leave unvaccinated people even more vulnerable. … It’s a variant that is more easily transmissible, potentially deadlier, and particularly dangerous for young people.”
People who’ve gotten only one dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine: Research suggests a single dose offers significantly less protection than two.
People who have compromised immune systems: This includes those who take immune-suppressing medication to manage health conditions, such as cancer, auto-immune disorders, and people who have had transplants or have HIV.
Even if they’ve been fully vaccinated, there is a possibility that they may not be as protected as people who are not immune-compromised.
What should I do if I’ve not been vaccinated or have a compromised immune system?
What it is recommended at the moment is in spite of the relaxation of the coronavirus restrictions and mask mandates, immunosuppressed patients should continue to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and practice self-distancing if they’re going to be in a public place where no one can tell the vaccination status of the people sitting next to them, said Dr. Millie Samaniego, director of the kidney, pancreas transplant program at the Henry Ford Transplant Institute.
When healthy people get vaccines, Samaniego said, it helps to protect those who are immune-compromised. That’s why anyone who lives with people who have those underlying conditions or is close to them should be vaccinated.
“We just need to be realistic and try to do the right thing,” she said. “As citizens, we have responsibilities towards older people. Being immunized is one of them, in my opinion. … I think we all should pursue vaccination.”
People with cancer, autoimmune diseases and those who’ve had organ transplants should get vaccinated, too.
“There are no contraindications,” she said.
Where can I get a COVID-19 vaccine?
The vaccines are free and available at most pharmacies on a walk-up basis with no need for an appointment.
You can text your ZIP code to 438829 to get an immediate response with vaccination sites closest to you. The text messaging system also will help you get a free Uber or Lyft ride to and from vaccination sites or free child care.
Young kids can’t get vaccinated. What about them?
Children ages 12 and older are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine in the United States, but no COVID-19 vaccine has FDA emergency use authorization for children younger than 12.
“For the older children that are eligible, (parents) definitely should consider getting them vaccinated,” Petrie said. And as soon as a COVID-19 vaccine gets approval for younger kids, get them vaccinated as well.
“I think the position we’re in now, … especially in Michigan, we have pretty low levels of transmission. But there is that risk, particularly with the delta variant, that things could pick up again. I think that makes it kind of important to keep an eye on what are the trends in your local area, and keep an ear out for advisories from your health department or the state, and try to base some of your activities around that.
“If transmission stays low you can, as the governor has suggested, start getting back to a lot of normal activities. But if things pick back up again, you may want to consider going back to some of the measures that we’ve been doing throughout the pandemic,” such as wearing a mask and avoiding large gatherings, especially indoors.
Could the delta variant lead to more COVID-19 restrictions?
Probably not, Biden said.
“I don’t think so because so many people have already been vaccinated,” he said, “but the delta variant can cause more people to die in areas where people have not been vaccinated.”
Could the delta variant affect the start of the school year in the fall?
It might, Gottlieb said.
“When we saw that big surge of infection in Michigan (in March and April 2021), it happened right around the time they opened their schools,” Gottlieb, the former director of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, told CNBC on Monday. “And I think the consensus was among most people that the opening of the schools contributed to that big surge. We saw the schools did become focal points of spread of the B.1.1.7, which was the more transmissible strain.
“Now we have the new delta variant which is even more transmissible.”
Schools, Gottlieb said, would be smart to consider some coronavirus mitigation measures when they reopen.
“I think a lot of school districts are going to want to start the year and probably should with some forms of mitigation,” he said, “whether it’s masks, or just some distancing and good prudent practices within the school … until they figure out which way this goes, and whether or not these models are right.
“Most of the models showing upsurge early in the fall; they show this happening in September with the new one, with the delta variant.”
Contact Kristen Shamus: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.