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White House Coronavirus Task Force Raising Alarms Over Delta Variant

Masked man in car driving through a vaccination line
The Delta variant of COVID-19 is spreading rapidly through the South. Expert observers worry that it may cause unmitigated harm to unvaccinated populations. Photo courtesy UMMC

As the Delta variant begins to race through the United States, the White House Coronavirus Task Force is warning that unvaccinated populations are especially at risk from the virulent new strain of COVID-19. That includes young adults who previously displayed a healthy resistance to the worst effects of the virus.

Dr. David Kessler, the task force’s chief science officer, spoke with the Mississippi Free Press on July 1 to stress the unique danger the variant strain poses to the nation’s most unvaccinated state.

“The Delta variant (of coronavirus) is increasing here in the United States, and it does appear to be more transmittable. It is also impacting young people in a way that previous variants have not,” Kessler said.

More Transmission, More Hospitalizations

The global community is still struggling to understand the full measure of Delta’s virulence and lethality, but preliminary evidence suggests it is massively more transmissible and dangerous. Studies from the United Kingdom find Delta displays roughly 60% more transmissibility than the virus’ Alpha variant, itself already significantly more infectious than the original strain.

Data from Scotland is even more concerning, showing early signs that Delta causes twice the hospitalization rate of the Alpha variant. This same study found Delta predominantly in young adults, suggesting that young, unvaccinated adults are disproportionately in the crosshairs of the variant.

“We’re fortunate that we know how to deal with this. We have safe and effective vaccines that work against this variant, and people who are vaccinated are protected from Delta. That’s why it’s more important than ever that if you’re unvaccinated you get the shot,” Kessler explained.

White House Coronavirus Task Force Chief Science Officer Dr. David Kessler spoke to the Mississippi Free Press in an afternoon interview, sharing his growing alarm over the Delta variant of the coronavirus, which is causing an uptick in cases and hospitalizations in unvaccinated adults across the globe.

Studies back up Kessler’s claims. The same U.K. data that provided a snapshot of the new variant’s transmissibility also suggests that two shots of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine provide an 88% reduction in cases and a 94% reduction in hospitalizations. Single-shot vaccines, like Johnson and Johnson’s formulation, have a spottier record at preventing mild breakthrough cases of variants of concern.

Still, preliminary data from the AstraZeneca shot in the U.K., which is comparable to the Johnson and Johnson shot, showed 92% effectiveness at reducing hospitalizations, suggesting that the most important feature of the one-shot vaccine—its ability to prevent overwhelmed hospitals and deaths—is likely to be retained against Delta.

The focus of the Coronavirus Task Force was still focused on getting the “primary” dose into arms, Kessler said today. “We’re not ready to make any decision on booster vaccines. There’ll be more data on the Johnson and Johnson vaccine over the next few weeks and months from studies that they are doing. My concern right now is to make sure that people get their—what we call their primary series,” he said.

‘Cost-Anxious’ Vaccination Holdouts

Kessler acknowledged a New York Times survey that found Mississippi to have the highest percentage of “cost-anxious” vaccination holdouts, which includes individuals afraid that the vaccine costs money, as well as those incapable of risking time off work to deal with side effects. Kessler stressed the importance of messaging around the vaccine’s lack of cost.

“The most important thing right now is to emphasize to everybody that we have worked very hard to make sure that there is no charge on the vaccine: that not only covers the vaccine, but that covers the administration fee.” 

Kessler also confirmed that data support the use of incentives like lotteries to drive up vaccination rates. “No doubt, we’ve seen a lot of creative incentives, including lotteries. We have seen an increase after those are announced,” he said.

As the Delta variant continues to rise—with what Kessler called “mini-surges” around the country—the task force expert worries that the nation is experiencing a mirror of what happened in 2020: a summer surge in areas of high social vulnerability, like the South, followed by a cascade of cases in the winter, when activities and groups crowd indoors to avoid the cold. 

“That’s absolutely my concern now,” Kessler said. “Last year we didn’t have the vaccines, so no one was protected. I think what you’re going to see is, those communities that have a high rate of vaccination, you’re going to see protection. But there will be mini-surges and then full surges in those communities that are unvaccinated.”

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