This week, the CDC announced that in areas of the country with high COVID transmission, even vaccinated people should start wearing masks indoors again. In issuing the new guidance —a change from previous recommendations — the agency cited concerns about the rapidly spreading Delta variant, the most contagious strain yet. Right now, the Delta variant accounts for about 83 percent of COVID cases in the U.S. In states with low rates of vaccination, including many in the South, cases are surging, and some hospitals are now experiencing the biggest influx of patients of the entire pandemic.
The main danger with the Delta variant is increased transmission rates — meaning it can spread much faster than previous strains of COVID. According to the World Health Organization, if you are fully vaccinated, the chances of contracting a severe case of COVID are extremely low. However, there are more and more reports of breakthrough cases among vaccinated people, leading many to wonder how worried they should be about this variant and if they should change their behavior.
To learn more about what the Delta variant’s spread means for those who have been vaccinated, the Cut spoke with two doctors at Yale Medicine: Dr. Inci Yildirim, an infectious disease specialist and vaccinologist, and Dr. Francis P. Wilson, an epidemiologist and nephrologist. Here’s what to know.
Vaccination Is Still the Best Protection
Recent studies have suggested that the Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines might be less effective in preventing infection for the Delta variant than with previous strains. This has caused some alarm, but experts say it shouldn’t be cause for panic: Breakthrough infections were always expected. They should not deter you from getting vaccinated or make you feel any less safe. Experts agree that vaccines are by far the most effective protection against COVID, including the Delta variant: Currently, unvaccinated individuals account for 99.5 percent of new COVID deaths and 97 percent of hospitalizations in the U.S. According to doctors, any of the COVID vaccines provide excellent protection from severe infection requiring hospitalization. “No vaccine for any infection gives 100 percent protection. But if you are infected and vaccinated, the risk of severe disease is significantly lower,” Dr. Yildirim explains. Getting vaccinated is still the best thing you can do for the safety of yourself and others.
Know the Symptoms
Breakthrough cases tend to be relatively rare (according to CDC estimates, only .098 percent of fully vaccinated people experience a symptomatic breakthrough case), but they do happen, and while they are categorized as “mild,” they’re obviously not pleasant — and they can contribute to the spread of COVID. Medically speaking, “mild” means your case does not require supplemental oxygen, but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel really sick. Further, though much is still unknown about “long COVID,” there is some evidence that breakthrough infections can result in symptoms that last longer than six weeks.
If your latest cold feels a bit more severe, you should consider getting a COVID test to help reduce the spread — especially if you live in an area with low vaccination rates or you regularly interact with people who can’t be vaccinated yet, like children under 12. The Delta variant symptoms include many of the same ones we’ve become hyperaware of throughout the pandemic, including runny nose, sore throat, fever, and loss of taste and smell, but the number one symptom reported for this variant is a headache. Many young people report that the Delta variant feels like a bad cold or a “funny, off feeling.” The WHO currently recommends getting tested and remaining in isolation if you have COVID-like symptoms, even if you’ve been vaccinated.
Assess Your Own Risk
Dr. Yildirim says that, for vaccinated people, deciding how to protect yourself from the Delta variant comes down to risk assessment. If you are going to be spending time with only other vaccinated people, the risk of a breakthrough infection is extremely low, so you don’t need to worry as much about masking or social distancing. However, if you are in a crowded, public, and especially indoor place with people you aren’t certain are vaccinated, wearing a mask is probably still a good idea. Experts also recommend taking into account the vaccination rates in your area and adjusting your behavior to fit the likelihood that you will come into contact with unvaccinated individuals. Right now, there are still 16 states where less than 50 percent of the population has received a dose of the vaccine — including Mississippi, Wyoming, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Even in states that have surpassed that benchmark, some cities are experiencing a rise in breakthrough cases — like Los Angeles, where the vaccination rate is just over 52 percent and local health officials recently reported that 20 percent of newly diagnosed COVID cases were among vaccinated individuals.
Protecting Your Kids and Other At-Risk Family Members
When it comes to kids, the CDC’s advice remains the same it’s been for most of the pandemic. Children between the ages of 2 and 12 who cannot yet be vaccinated should still wear masks in public, indoor spaces, but they are safe to spend time with other unvaccinated children outdoors. Because the Delta variant’s transmission rates are so high, doctors suggest staying away from larger crowds, even outdoors.
The biggest thing you can do to protect your children and vulnerable people around you is to get vaccinated. Information is still unfolding about how likely you are to spread a breakthrough case to an unvaccinated individual; new research suggests it is possible but rare. It’s also important to remember that children who do contract COVID are unlikely to have a severe case. Doctors recommend utilizing the same habits you might practice during a typical flu season — such as monitoring your child’s symptoms and being especially diligent in keeping hands and surfaces clean.
For children over the age of 12 who are eligible, vaccination is critical to slow the spread of the virus. Dr. Yildirim also suggests, after a year of staying home, parents should make sure their children’s other vaccinations are up-to-date, especially before returning to school.