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‘Dealing with a different beast’: Why Delta has doctors worried


Catherine O’Neal, MD, an infectious disease physician, took to the podium of the Louisiana governor’s press conference recently and did not mince words.

“The Delta variant is not last year’s virus, and it’s become incredibly apparent to healthcare workers that we are dealing with a different beast,” she said.

Louisiana is one of the least vaccinated states in the country. In the United States as a whole, 48.6% of the population is fully vaccinated. In Louisiana, it’s just 36%, and Delta is bearing down.

Dr. O’Neal spoke about the pressure that rising COVID cases were already putting on her hospital, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge. She talked about watching her peers, 30- and 40-year-olds, become severely ill with the latest iteration of the new coronavirus — the Delta variant — which is sweeping through the United States with astonishing speed, causing new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths to rise again.

Dr. O’Neal talked about parents who might not be alive to see their children go off to college in a few weeks. She talked about increasing hospital admissions for infected kids and pregnant women on ventilators.

“I want to be clear after seeing what we’ve seen the last two weeks. We only have two choices: We are either going to get vaccinated and end the pandemic, or we’re going to accept death and a lot of it,” Dr. O’Neal said, her voice choked by emotion.

Where Delta goes, death follows

Delta was first identified in India, where it caused a devastating surge in the spring. In a population that was largely unvaccinated, researchers think it may have caused as many as three million deaths. In just a few months’ time, it has sped across the globe.

Research from the United Kingdom shows that Delta is highly contagious. It’s about 60% more easily passed from person to person than the Alpha version (or B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the United Kingdom).

Where a single infected person might have spread older versions of the virus to two or three others, mathematician and epidemiologist Adam Kucharski, PhD, an associate professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, thinks that number — called the basic reproduction number — might be around six for Delta, meaning that, on average, each infected person spreads the virus to six others.

“The Delta variant is the most able and fastest and fittest of those viruses,” said Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Programme, in a recent press briefing.

Early evidence suggests it may also cause more severe disease in people who are not vaccinated.

“There’s clearly increased risk of ICU admission, hospitalization, and death,” said Ashleigh Tuite, PhD, MPH, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Toronto in Ontario.

In a study published ahead of peer review, Dr. Tuite and her coauthor, David Fisman, MD, MPH, reviewed the health outcomes for more than 200,000 people who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in Ontario between February and June of 2021. Starting in February, Ontario began screening all positive COVID tests for mutations in the N501Y region for signs of mutation.

Compared with versions of the coronavirus that circulated in 2020, having an Alpha, Beta, or Gamma variant modestly increased the odds that an infected person would become sicker. The Delta variant raised the risk even higher, more than doubling the odds that an infected person would need to be hospitalized or could die from their infection.

Emerging evidence from England and Scotland, analyzed by Public Health England, also shows an increased risk for hospitalization with Delta. The increases are in line with the Canadian data. Experts caution that the picture may change over time as more evidence is gathered.

“What is causing that? We don’t know,” Dr. Tuite said.


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