Should the Delta variant change the U.S. pandemic playbook?

·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

A more contagious variant of the coronavirus, known as Delta, has spread to more than 80 countries around the world and now accounts for more than half of COVID-19 cases in the United States.

First identified in India, Delta is believed to be between 40 and 60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha variant that was first identified in the United Kingdom, which itself was substantially more contagious than the original coronavirus strain that started the global pandemic. The Delta variant has fueled outbreaks around the globe and forced a growing number of countries to impose new restrictions to reduce its spread. Even nations that had been lauded as models for pandemic containment and vaccine distribution — such as South Korea, Australia and Israel — have throttled back reopening plans in response to the variant. Delta is believed to be a factor in major surges reported in developing countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

Delta has quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. in the coming weeks and poses the “greatest threat” to America's efforts to eliminate COVID-19, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. Despite these concerns and the aggressive response taken in some of America’s peer countries, Fauci and other top government health officials say the variant probably won’t dramatically change the course of the U.S. virus response. "Where people have gotten the two shots, the Delta variant is highly unlikely to result in anything," President Biden said in mid-June.

Why there’s debate

The key factor that distinguishes the U.S. from other nations that have responded aggressively to the variant, Fauci said, is the relatively high percentage of Americans who have been vaccinated against COVID-19. There’s evidence that fully vaccinated people enjoy similar levels of protection against Delta as they do from other variants, though those who have only had one dose appear to face greater risk. Administration officials argue that the best way to stamp out Delta is to stay the course on the campaign to get as many Americans vaccinated as possible, rather than spend time and resources on other, less effective mitigation efforts.

Some experts, however, say the U.S. should amend its approach in response to the Delta variant. Though more lockdowns seem far-fetched, some have called for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reverse its guidance that vaccinated people can go maskless indoors — at least until there’s clear evidence that they can’t pass the Delta variant along to the unvaccinated. Others say the Biden administration should do more to inform the public of the dangers posed by Delta. While the U.S. is ahead of most countries on vaccinations, only half of the total population is fully protected, which could leave ample room for Delta to cause severe outbreaks — especially in communities with low vaccination rates.

Global health experts argue that the Delta variant should serve as a wake-up call for rich nations like the U.S. about the dangers of letting the virus run rampant in the developing world. Beyond the moral imperative of preventing unnecessary death among the world’s poor, wealthy countries risk allowing a vaccine-resistant form of the virus to evolve unless they dramatically ramp up foreign aid efforts, they argue.

What’s next

Areas of the country with low vaccination rates and high summer temperatures that force people to congregate indoors could serve as a test case for the dangers of the Delta variant, scientists say. “Watch the South in the summer,” one epidemiologist told the Atlantic. “That’ll give us a flavor of what we’re likely to see in the fall and winter.”

Perspectives

Stay the course

The media is overhyping the risks of the Delta variant

“While no strain yet has proven too much for vaccines to resist, it would be best to avoid that possibility altogether. If nothing else, it would be nice to silence liberal talking heads who incessantly drone on about how each new variant will definitely be the one that brings civilization to its knees.” — Robert Schmad, Washington Examiner

Delta isn’t dangerous enough to bring back widespread masking

“If, God forbid, there was a new variant that our existing vaccines proved helpless against, then reinstating mask-wearing for vaccinated people would make sense. But that’s not the case. So far, the vaccines are working against the Delta variant.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review

The same strategies we’ve been using will work against Delta

“Despite the risks from Delta, the overall public health strategy used throughout the pandemic remains effective.” — Umair Irfan, Vox

More cases doesn’t mean more deaths

“The virus is disproportionately dangerous to the elderly. People have assessed their risk level and acted accordingly. Even if cases go up, this data suggests hospitalizations and deaths won’t skyrocket like they did last summer.” — Victor Joecks, Las Vegas Review-Journal

Change strategy

Mask mandates should be reinstated

“The CDC needs to act quickly, without waiting, to follow the WHO guidelines and ask everyone to put the masks back on so we can stay open, protect folks, and keep the economy going.” — Public health expert Shad Marvasti to Yahoo Finance

Schools will need to be more vigilant about preventing virus spread among students

“The old assumptions about … children [not] driving community spread were based on the original strain of this virus. With these new, more contagious variants, I think we’re going to see that children and schools do become more of a focal point of spread.” — Former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb to CNBC

The U.S. needs a more ambitious herd-immunity benchmark

“President Biden set a goal of 70 percent of Americans getting at least one shot by July 4. The hope was that once the nation reached herd immunity, the virus would die out. Thanks to the Delta variant, it is time to reconsider. … Since it began, SARS-CoV-2 has evolved to become far more contagious. The goal posts must move when the virus moves. The higher the contagion, the larger share of the population must be immune. — Editorial, Washington Post

More emphasis should be put on ensuring people get their second dose

“National policy goals should no longer focus on the percentage of people who have received at least one vaccination shot, but rather the percentage of people who are fully vaccinated. This may seem like a subtle difference, but it is key when evaluating the level of immunity against the Delta variant.” — David Holtgrave, CNN

Wealthy countries need to dramatically ramp up global vaccination efforts

“99 percent of residents in low-income countries remain unvaccinated, raising the possibility of more variants, beyond the 11 already identified by WHO, developing in the months to come. With full global vaccination not likely until at least 2024, vaccine drives need speeding up.” — Colm Quinn, Foreign Policy

We should be preparing for even more dangerous variants right now

“The WHO’s decision to name variants after the Greek alphabet means that at some point, we’ll probably be dealing with an Omega variant. Our decisions now will determine whether that sinister name is accompanied by equally sinister properties, or whether Omega will be just an unremarkable scene during the pandemic’s closing act.” — Ed Yong, Atlantic

Many will die needlessly if vaccinated Americans are too complacent

“Although it’s all too easy for those of us who have been vaccinated to say, ‘No need to worry,’ I’d urge us to still take the Delta variant seriously. If not for ourselves, then for our country.” — Megan Ranney, NBC News

The campaign to get vulnerable people vaccinated should be put into overdrive

“There’s still a big problem with people not having easy access [to vaccines]. … We should start going door to door.” — Virologist Angela Rasmussen to Scientific American

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