The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we at the Pima Council on Aging (PCOA) have done all we can to support and protect older adults. We’ve done so through direct services, as well as by being a resource of reliable information.
Today, much of our efforts are focused on removing barriers and encouraging everyone who can to get the COVID-19 vaccine — to protect ourselves and one another, and to discourage the development of more deadly variants of the virus.
All viruses evolve over time and undergo changes as they spread and replicate. This means that as long as the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 continues to spread, new mutations will appear, some of which may be stronger, more contagious and more deadly than previous strains.
When a virus infects a new host, it makes copies of itself with small genetic differences called mutations. A mutation can occur in a segment of the virus that makes it either more infectious or more deadly. That variant then starts to predominate because it has a genetic advantage against other versions of the virus. This is the dynamic at work with the delta variant, also known as B.1.617.2.
Delta is a highly contagious and more severe strain of the virus, which was first identified in India in December and swept rapidly through India and Great Britain.
The US saw its first delta case in March, and it is now the dominant strain nationwide, growing from 10% of all COVID-19 cases at the beginning of June to nearly 52% by early July.
Areas with low levels of vaccinated people have been hit hardest, with as many as 80% of cases being the delta variant and hospitalization rates on the rise in states with low vaccine rates.
Delta is responsible for the 10% overall increase in new COVID-19 cases in the US in recent weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Medical professionals around the world treating the delta strain are seeing differences between this and previous variants of the virus. The delta strain appears to be at least 50% more transmissible than the alpha variant, which had previously been the most common strain in the U.S. (and was itself 50% more transmissible than the original strain of the virus).
It is impacting more young people, partly because they make up much of the unvaccinated group. Early data suggests that delta causes infected people to become more severely ill, according to the CDC. Symptoms look somewhat different, as well, with loss of smell and cough being less common and headache, sore throat, runny nose, and fever more likely.
Here in Pima County, in early July we celebrated the milestone of 70% of adults having received at least one dose, with that number rising to 92% among older adults 65+. The good news here is that higher rates of vaccination in our local communities make widespread transmission of the Delta variant less likely. And in more good news, studies show existing vaccines to be highly effective against the delta variant.
According to the CDC, data collected from a set of U.S. states over the past six months showed that 99.5% of people who died of COVID-19 were unvaccinated. Where people remain unvaccinated, communities remain vulnerable.
Though Pima County continues to move in a positive direction with vaccine rates, the surest way to prevent additional serious illness and death among our friends and neighbors, and to thwart the development of more devastating variants, is for every one of us who can to become fully vaccinated as soon as possible.
W. Mark Clark is president & CEO at the Pima Council on Aging (PCOA).