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Discussing the Delta Variant of COVID-19 with Rachael Lee, MD

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Rachael Lee, MD, one of UAB Medicine’s infectious disease physicians, answers questions submitted by Instagram users about the rise of the Delta variant of COVID-19 and about safety and prevention.

 

How different is the Delta variant from regular COVID-19?

The Delta variant appears to be 200% more transmissible than the original COVID-19 strain, so we are seeing more people become infected after exposure. Symptom-wise, patients report more cold-like symptoms before they develop cough. We are still learning whether the Delta variant is more severe than other strains, but at UAB Medicine, we are seeing more young people admitted with severe cases of COVID-19 than in the past.

What are some symptoms of the Delta variant?

The Delta variant appears to have the same symptoms as the original strain of COVID-19, though people are getting symptoms faster. Common symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath, headache, and body aches.

If I become infected with the Delta variant of COVID-19, how do I treat it?

Treatment is the same as with other variants of COVID-19. For most people who have mild symptoms, you can recover at home by getting plenty of rest and staying hydrated. It’s okay to take over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen for symptom relief. If you are feeling short of breath, call your doctor and ask about next steps. Certain patients who are at high risk for complications (such as older and immunocompromised patients) may benefit from treatment with monoclonal antibodies, so ask your health care provider about this treatment if you have other medical problems.

Where did the Delta variant come from?

The nature of the COVID-19 virus is to jump from person to person and make copies of itself. It does this fast but not carefully, so sometimes it makes a mistake when making these copies. That mistake may be enough to make the virus smarter at shielding itself from our immune system or travel more easily from one person to the next. It is a completely random process. However, reducing the spread can help prevent variants from popping up.

Is the Delta variant more deadly?

It is too early to tell in the United States. However, in the United Kingdom (which also is seeing a surge of the Delta variant), the number of deaths has stayed low. This is all due to vaccination!

Is the Delta variant mainly spread through respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing rather than from touch?

Yes. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommends proper hand hygiene and frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces.

Are disinfectants such as Lysol effective with the Delta variant?

Yes! Even though the Delta variant is more infectious, it doesn’t last long on surfaces. As long as you use cleaning products recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency, your space should be disinfected.

How is the Delta variant affecting pediatric patients?

Unfortunately, we‘ve seen many more COVID-19 cases among children since the rise of the Delta variant, and many pediatric hospitals are admitting unprecedented numbers of children with COVID-19.

Is the Delta variant more dangerous or more contagious for kids?

We are still learning about this. The COVID-19 vaccines are not approved for children under the age of 12, so we expect more cases in this age group if we don’t follow other measures such as masking and social distancing. Right now, large numbers of kids in Alabama are hospitalized with COVID-19, but it’s hard to know if this is due to the overall rise in cases or if kids are having more severe symptoms than with the original strain of COVID-19. Either way, we have to do whatever we can to protect people who are not eligible for the vaccine.

How is the spread of COVID-19 different from the spread of flu?

In people who’ve never had the flu, the spread is very similar to that of COVID-19, since both spread through respiratory droplets, such as from sneezing and coughing. The CDC, however, suggests that the Delta variant may be more contagious than the flu (more like the contagiousness of chicken pox). A lot of the spread in the community has to do with herd immunity – in the case of flu, we have flu vaccines, and many people have had flu in the past. In the fall and winter seasons prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw flu epidemics.

Do COVID-19 tests detect the Delta variant?

COVID-19 tests (both the more sensitive PCR test and the rapid antigen test) are capable of identifying the Delta variant, but the test results only say positive or negative. We have to do special lab testing called sequencing to determine which strain of COVID-19 is present. At UAB, we run positive COVID-19 PCR tests that meet certain criteria through this sequencing process weekly. Currently, 100% of these tests are showing the Delta strain.

Are you seeing more deaths from the Delta variant among people in their 20s? What’s the percentage?

At this time, there are not enough data nationally to know the breakdown of deaths due to the Delta variant. I expect more data in the coming weeks.

Does the vaccine protect against the Delta variant?

If you are vaccinated, your risk of symptomatic COVID-19 is eight times lower, and your risk of hospitalization and death is 25 times lower. Among vaccinated Americans, 99.9% have not tested positive, and of those, 0.004% have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and 0.001% have died. That being said, Alabama and several other states are facing extreme case surges, which increase your risk of exposure. To protect yourself and reduce your chance of having a symptomatic case of COVID-19, you should mask up around others right now.

Is there a high chance of getting the Delta variant among those who’ve already had COVID-19?

We are still learning about how our antibodies against COVID-19 – whether from vaccination or naturally from a prior COVID-19 infection – protect against the Delta variant. This is the main reason that the CDC recommends masking indoors during the current surge.

 

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Alabama, please remember to practice good hand hygiene, and contact your primary care provider if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or had a recent exposure. At this time, everyone age 12 and older is eligible for vaccination, according to Alabama Department of Public Health guidelines. Vaccination appointments can easily be scheduled by visiting our vaccine website.

For daily updates on COVID-19 hospitalizations, Q&A sessions with UAB Medicine providers, and much more, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.