What to know about the Delta variant

Essex County Health Department talks COVID-19, vaccines

Nurse Gail Lautenschuetz, of Lake Placid, administers a dose of coronavirus vaccine to Alan Dabiew of North Bangor on Thursday, Feb. 25, at the North Country Community College gym in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

More than half of adults living in Essex County are vaccinated against COVID-19, but with the highly infectious Delta variant now the dominant strain of the virus in the U.S., local health officials say more residents need to get vaccinated to help curb the spread of the variant and end the pandemic before more mutations of the virus can develop.

The number of new COVID-19 cases found across the country each day has quadrupled over the past month. With that increase has come a rise in the number of people being hospitalized or dying from virus-related complications. The vast majority of new coronavirus infections are among unvaccinated people. It’s rare for vaccinated people to get “breakthrough” infections, but when it happens, the vaccines largely prevent serious illness, according to the Associated Press.

New research has shown that those who are vaccinated and subsequently infected with the Delta variant may be just as contagious as unvaccinated people, even if they don’t experience any symptoms, The New York Times reported Thursday. This contradicts earlier studies, which showed that vaccinated people who were infected with previous strains of the virus — not the Delta variant — were largely unable to infect others, according to the Times.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance this week asking even those who are vaccinated to wear masks indoors in areas where there is a high level of community spread, meaning a high number of cases where the source of a person’s infection is unknown.

Essex County Health Department Program Coordinator Andrea Whitmarsh said the county doesn’t yet have data that could show the extent of the Delta variant’s spread — or even confirm the presence of it here — because test results aren’t reported with that information.

“Without this data, we cannot say for certain that the Delta variant is here in Essex County; however, the Delta variant is, overwhelmingly, the dominant strain circulating across the country,” she said.

The symptoms of the Delta variant are the same as other strains: fever, dry cough, difficulty breathing, muscle aches, fatigue, temporary loss of taste or smell.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that the state is partnering with five laboratories to expand its capacity for genetic sequencing, meaning that a higher number of COVID-19 tests could be more closely analyzed for specific variants.

“The governor’s initiative to add lab capacity to perform the required genomic sequencing to identify variants should help provide specific data to counties in New York, but we don’t have specifics yet about how this information will be rolled out,” Whitmarsh said.

Though the county doesn’t have this data right now, the health department is stressing the importance of getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The Delta variant spreads more than twice as easily from person to person when compared to strains earlier in the pandemic,” the department wrote in a news release Wednesday. “This has made it the predominant circulating variant progressing from under 1% of cases in May to over 80% of cases in July. Moreover, the latest data shows the people infected with the Delta variant have higher viral loads — more virus in their bodies — than with previous variants.”

A higher viral load typically translates to a higher chance of spreading the virus to others. People vaccinated against COVID-19, in general, should have a much lower viral load if they get infected with most strains of the virus. Those infected with the Delta variant, however, may still carry a high viral load, the Times reported Thursday.

“What we know right now is that people that are vaccinated represent a very small amount of transmission,” the department wrote. “Once vaccinated, most people are protected from the virus. Breakthrough cases occur in a small proportion of vaccinated people and the vast majority have mild symptoms and do not experience serious illness leading to hospitalization or death. This is so important to stress. If you get vaccinated, your risk of being infected is 3.5-fold lower; your risk of getting ill is 8-fold lower; your risk of hospitalization or death is 25-fold lower. Fully vaccinated people have a strong degree of protection against COVID variants, including Delta.”

In Essex County, around 70% of residents over the age of 18 have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the health department. About 58.5% of residents are fully vaccinated.

In the last week, the county has reported 16 new cases of COVID-19 — including six in the town of North Elba and one in Keene — bringing the total number of active cases to 18, as of Thursday.

“We know it’s disheartening to see case counts tick back up again after experiencing such low positivity rates in early summer,” the health department wrote in a news release. “This might lead some to believe that the vaccines don’t work or that protection is already waning. Really, what is more likely happening is that as the Delta variant has overtaken other strains to become the most commonly circulating variant in the country, and it’s high transmissibility means that it will be harder for unvaccinated individuals to avoid becoming infected — especially at the current vaccination levels in our communities. The vast majority of transmission and of severe cases continues to occur in the unvaccinated.

“Getting vaccinated is about doing your part to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your community,” the department added.

The CDC has recommended people, even those who are vaccinated, wear masks indoors in areas with a substantial or high level of community spread — Essex County has “moderate” community spread and Franklin County, “low” spread, according to the CDC. Those who are unvaccinated must always wear masks indoors.

“While Essex County is not at (a substantial or high) level of community transmission, we would consider recommending additional layers of prevention, like masking indoors, social distancing, etc. if the need arises,” Whitmarsh said. “That said, we cannot provide recommendations for every situation. It is important that individuals consider their own health, unique circumstances, and any risk to themselves, their family, and their community when making decisions about prevention strategies.”

Essex County residents interested in getting vaccinated against COVID-19 can visit www.co.essex.ny.us/health/make-an-appointment to find dates and times for vaccine clinics run by the county Health Department. Franklin County residents can call 518-481-1710 for more information about where to get vaccinated. Vaccine appointments can also be made at many local pharmacies.


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