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The Delta Variant: Everything Parents Need to Know About the COVID Mutation

What parents (and kids) need to know about the worrisome and widespread new variant.

Joy Velasco for Fatherly

Just when it seemed like the end of the pandemic in the U.S., everything goes Delta. When it comes to this COVID variant, there’s a lot to chew on: The Delta variant is more dangerous than any other coronavirus strain yet, and its emergence in the States is poorly timed with mask mandates dropping, summer camp in full swing, and schools planning to open up in person for the fall. Add this to the fact that kids under 12 are still unable to get the COVID vaccine and, yes, you have our attention.

But is it time to panic? In a word, no. While it is more transmissible, vaccines protect against the variant, and it does not seem to have changed the way COVID impacts children — which is to say, usually mildly. That’s a lot to unpack, so let’s get into it. Here’s everything parents need to know about the Delta variant. 

What is the Delta variant?

Delta is the coronavirus variant that was first identified in India, where it wreaked havoc before spreading to the UK and the rest of the world. It’s contributing to rising COVID rates in the U.S., where it’s now the cause of 83 percent of all new cases.

Some people fear that that Delta will spur a new wave of COVID in the U.S., but with one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, most experts think the country is generally well-protected. However, severe outbreaks may occur in local areas where few people are vaccinated or have natural immunity. In late June, Delta led to a 10 percent uptick in new COVID cases in the U.S.

Does the Delta variant spread faster or differently?

The Delta variant is highly contagious. Some experts think that it’s twice as transmissible as the coronavirus that started the pandemic and 40 to 60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha variant. It’s likely the most transmissible variant yet.

What does this mean in real-world terms? Here’s one (terrifying) example: A CCTV camera in Australia documented two people passing each other briefly in a mall. One of the people infected the other despite only sharing airspace for a few seconds, genetic analysis confirmed. This situation is probably unusual, but it highlights just how transmissible Delta can be.

Is the Delta variant deadlier?

There’s not enough evidence yet to know whether the Delta variant kills more people. However, a large study in Scotland found that Delta leads to hospitalization at twice the rate of the Alpha variant, which was first identified in the UK and is currently the dominant strain in the U.S. This suggests that it may cause more severe disease, but researchers can’t be certain yet. And even if it doesn’t, Delta can cause issues because it will get more people sick, possibly leading to overcrowded hospitals.

Do the COVID vaccines stop it?

The available evidence supports that the vaccines are effective at stopping infection and severe disease from Delta, but not as effective as they were at protecting against other coronavirus variants. 

The Pfizer vaccine is 88 percent effective against the Delta variant, and Moderna’s vaccine is expected to have similar efficacy. Still, the Scottish researchers found that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are less effective against Delta than they are against Alpha. Johnson & Johnson recently announced that its coronavirus vaccine is effective against the Delta variant, even eight months after inoculation. However, the J&J vaccine is much less effective against Delta than compared to the original coronavirus, according to a new pre-print study that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed and used tests on blood samples, not on real people.

In terms of hospitalizations, there is no meaningful difference in the risk between the Alpha and Delta variants for a vaccinated person. The Pfizer vaccine is 96 percent effective at preventing hospitalization, according to a pre-print study that has not yet been peer-reviewed. This suggests that it’s effective at protecting against severe disease, and not just overall infection. 

“If you’re fully vaccinated, I would largely not worry about it,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told the New York Times.

What are the CDC, WHO, and other experts saying about the Delta variant?

“We should think about the Delta variant as the 2020 version of COVID-19 on steroids,” Andy Slavitt, a former senior adviser to Joe Biden’s COVID Response Team, told CNN. “Fortunately, unlike 2020, we actually have a tool that stops the Delta variant in its tracks: It’s called vaccine.”

The World Health Organization says that with the spread of Delta, everyone should be wearing masks in public, including vaccinated individuals. “People cannot feel safe just because they had the two doses. They still need to protect themselves,” Mariângela Simão, WHO assistant director-general for access to medicines and health products, said in a news briefing. “Vaccine alone won’t stop community transmission… People need to continue to use masks consistently, be in ventilated spaces, hand hygiene… the physical distance, avoid crowding.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disagrees. “The CDC continually monitors the situation and I’m sure would remain flexible, that if any changes are warranted based on the evolving situation, they would then make a change in their recommendation. But right now, it doesn’t look that way,” Anthony Fauci, the leading COVID expert in the U.S., told CBSN. “It looks like they’re going to continue to stay by their original recommendation.”

“It is not comparable to look at what the WHO is recommending for the planet compared to what we in the United States, which have done generally quite well with vaccinations,” Fauci said. About 25 percent of the world population has receive at least one dose, compared to nearly 56 percent of the U.S. population, according to the CDC.

“At this point, thinking about wearing a mask is a little like dressing for the weather,” Linsey Marr, one of the world’s leading experts on viral transmission and a professor of environmental and water resources engineering at Virginia Tech, told the New York Times. “You need to consider the caseload and vaccination rates wherever you’re going, what activity you’ll be doing, and your own health.”

Where is the Delta variant?

Delta is present in more than 100 countries, and it is the most common variant in some parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe. It has also made its way to every state in the U.S., where it now causes 83 percent of all new COVID-19 cases.

States with low rates of vaccination and infection will be slammed by the virus, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CNN in late June. Communities that have low rates of vaccination are less protected against COVID-19. This is doubly true when those communities are also ones that had low rates of infection during the beginning of the pandemic. A double whammy takes place.

The five states that Gottlieb has major concerns about fit the bill of low vaccine rates and low infection rates. Those states are:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Wyoming

Speaking to CNN, Gottlieb said, “It’s not going to be as pervasive,” speaking about the next wave of outbreaks of COVID-19 due to the Delta variant. “It’s going to be hyper-regionalized. There are certain pockets of the country where you’re going to have very dense outbreaks.”

How worried should parents (and kids) be?

If parents are vaccinated, they don’t need to worry much about their own risk. (And if you’re a parent and you’re not vaccinated, what are you waiting for?)

For unvaccinated kids — and there are no vaccines approved for those under age 12 — Delta is more of an issue. Children are more likely to be infected by Delta, but not because they’re particularly susceptible to this variant. It’s just because it’s more transmissible in general, and kids are making up more and more of the share of the unvaccinated population.

Experts are more worried about kids being spreaders of the Delta variant than about them getting severely ill from it. Even if Delta landed kids in the hospital at twice the rates of previous variants, a child’s risk would still be “miniscule,” Eyal Leshem, an infectious disease specialist at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, told Business Insider.

“I’m not concerned about my children or other unvaccinated children who are around fully vaccinated people, but I’m very concerned about unvaccinated people being around others who are also unvaccinated — whether they’re children or adults,” Leana Wen, an emergency physician and a professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, told CNN. She lets her children play with other kids without masks outdoors, but they don’t socialize indoors with unvaccinated people.

“I think it’s very reasonable for parents who are living with kids who are unvaccinated… to consider wearing a mask if they’re in a high-risk area or if their job requires a high degree of exposure,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told CNN. “The goal is, again, here to create some flexibility so people can make decisions based on their situation and their risk tolerance.”