Just as we’ve started to reopen our doors, new information about more contagious mutations of the COVID-19 virus have us closing them again. The world has not seen a virus like COVID in over a century, and we continue to learn more about it each day. Sorting through the headlines can be confusing, so here is the information that older adults need to know about the changing COVID-19 landscape, including how to stay safe.
What is a variant?
Viruses are constantly changing. The Center for Disease Control offers this analogy to help the public understand the process:
If you think about a virus like a tree growing and branching out; each branch on the tree is slightly different than the others. By comparing the branches, scientists can label them according to the differences. These small differences, or variants, have been studied and identified since the beginning of the pandemic.
The first COVID-19 variant, labeled Alpha, was first detected in the United States in December 2020 and initially discovered in the United Kingdom. The Beta variant was discovered in South Africa and detected in the U.S. in January 2021. This was followed by the Gamma variant out of Brazil at the end of January. The latest variant to make its mark is the Delta variant, first detected in the United States in March 2021. It was first discovered in India in January 2021. It is the Delta variant that is currently getting the attention of healthcare officials globally.
Why should I be concerned?
The Delta variant has been shown to spread more quickly and easily than previous forms of the virus— about 50% more transmissible than original COVID-19 cases. This results in an increase of positive COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated individuals, and that means increasing hospitalizations and death. The CDC reports that over half of new COVID cases in the United States are the Delta variant.
The risk grows substantially when considering the increase in travel, eating out, and socializing that curtailed during the first months of the pandemic, but the risk only applies to those who have not been fully vaccinated against the COVID virus.
The CDC reports an increase in Delta variant cases among unvaccinated individuals in nine states including Kansas, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas, Wisconsin and Mississippi. Several counties in these states have been labeled “hot-spots.” This designation means that the county has reached “a threshold of disease activity considered as being of high burden.” The numbers can be staggering, too. For example, more than half of the population of Missouri lives in a COVID hot-spot, and those areas are among the lowest percentage of vaccinated residents.
What can I do to be safe?
The CDC says 99.5 percent of deaths from COVID-19 in the United States since April 2021 have been in unvaccinated people. The most important action you can take to be safe is to get the COVID-19 vaccine. It is widely available throughout the United States for anyone over the age of 12. All three vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson) offer protection against the Delta variant and others. You can also continue to wear a mask, socially distance, and wash your hands. Especially if you are not vaccinated, avoid crowds and indoor places when able.
The COVID-19 virus is still a very real threat to the health of people across the globe. More variants are likely to show up, further stretching available healthcare resources. With just over half of the United States now fully vaccinated against the virus, we still have a long journey ahead. Getting fully vaccinated is literally what the doctor has ordered to keep the virus in check.