State health officials are warning of the growing Delta variant of COVID-19, a strain of the virus experts have identified as significantly more infectious and potentially more lethal than wild-type coronavirus.
“Delta variant increasingly rapidly in MS,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs wrote earlier today on social media. “Let’s pay attention to Missouri. I predict it will be our dominant strain in 1-3 weeks.”
Dobbs’ comments represent an alarming acknowledgment of a viral trend growing in the South. Missouri currently has the nation’s highest rate of new cases of COVID-19, a daily case average of 693. Just as concerning, that average is on a steep incline, up 40% from only two weeks ago.
Arkansas, too, is on a steeper incline still, with 55% more cases on average than two weeks ago. The Delta variant has yet to seriously penetrate the Magnolia State, with only 29 reported cases thus far. But looking ahead in the metrics and early warning-signs, Dobbs has seen fit to raise the alarms. “New batch of testing (is) ominous,” Dobbs wrote.
The specific count of new cases of Delta, which requires the sequencing of detected infections, may lag behind other indicators of viral spread.
In a Wednesday press event, State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers warned that the Jackson metro area was a key hotspot for Delta in Mississippi. “We’re up to 29 cases that we’ve identified of the Delta variant. By and large these are in central Mississippi. We’re seeing the lion’s share in Hinds and Madison County,” Byers explained.
The Delta variant, which emerged from the horrific conflagration of COVID-19 cases in India earlier this year, could reverse some of the state’s progress on crushing the pandemic. Preliminary research suggests that Delta could be up to twice as likely to hospitalize victims than regular COVID-19.
In the U.S., Delta is rapidly overtaking other strains of the virus. Between its arrival in April and the end of June, the New York Times reports that Delta has grown from roughly 0.1 of all cases to over 20%.
The geographic character of the Delta outbreak is especially concerning. With national hotspots for the variant in nearby Missouri and Arkansas, state health officials are deeply concerned that Mississippi, still the least vaccinated state in the U.S., remains in the crosshairs of the dangerous coronavirus mutation.
“First and foremost, we really need to make sure we protect vulnerable folks,” Dobbs explained at yesterday’s press event.
“One of the things that we’re seeing with the Delta variant is the potential for community transmission,” Byers added.
“We’ve seen outbreaks where symptomatic staff members have brought (COVID-19) into nursing homes,” Dobbs said. “This is something that just can’t be OK.”
Fortunately, both Dobbs and Byers confirmed that the available COVID-19 vaccines are highly protective against the Delta variant, a statement borne out by current scientific understanding of the virus. Preliminary research from Public Health England found the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine displayed 88% effectiveness at preventing symptomatic infection in individuals who were fully vaccinated—that is, starting two weeks after the second dose.
The high degree of protection, only 5% less than comparative studies for the original strain of COVID-19, suggests that the fully vaccinated have little to fear from the new variant.
Earlier studies confirmed that the protections against symptomatic infection to the original strain of COVID-19 are accompanied with similarly powerful reductions in disease severity even in those rare cases of breakthrough infections, meaning vaccination should reduce infections in the healthy as well as hospitalizations and deaths in the infected.
Mississippi’s top public-health officials used the threat of Delta to illustrate the importance of the vaccines.
“We’ve been through the worst pandemic in over a century. We’ve lost over 600,000 Americans. It’s now the third leading cause of death in this country,” Dobbs lamented. “We now have an exit door. Too many of us are choosing not to use that door. When we don’t all use it together, and in a sufficient number … it keeps us all vulnerable.”