What We Know About the Delta Variant: An Executive Guide

After more than a year of dealing with COVID, a newfound sense of optimism began to take over a few months ago. Vaccinations were available, case counts were low, and we seemed to have turned the corner on the pandemic. Since then, however, the Delta various has thrown us for a loop, bringing back the sense of unease that exemplified the early stages of the pandemic in 2020.

This feeling of trepidation is only natural; while Delta is technically a COVID variant, it differs from the original disease in many major — and alarming — ways. With understanding, however, comes a greater ability to prepare for the next phase in the pandemic. To that end, we’ve compiled the latest information on the Delta variant, plus recommendations to help you stay safe and sane.

What Is the Delta Variant?

First detected in late 2020, the Delta variant initially exploded in India. It did not receive its current name from the World Health Organization until late May, 2021. Featuring mutations within the gene that encodes COVID’s spike protein, this strain is officially classified as a variant of concern (VOC).

The Delta variant is widely believed to rest at the center of India’s tragic second wave, which resulted in at least 400,000 new cases and 3,500 deaths per day by the end of April. Some health experts believe that this estimate actually represents a significant undercount.

Since the initial outbreak, Delta has quickly become the dominant version of COVID in most nations. It represents a turning point in the pandemic, causing new waves in countries that initially seemed resistant to the worst of the virus.

Why Is Delta So Dangerous?

The chief dangers of the Delta variant lie in the ease of transmission. The original COVID was already extraordinarily easy to pass from one person to the next, but Delta takes this to a whole new level. Even the Alpha strain that ripped through the United Kingdom has nothing on Delta.

Descriptions of Delta’s transmissibility vary a bit from one authority to the next. A leaked report from the Centers for Disease Control, for example, claimed that the Delta variant could be as transmissible as the notoriously catchy chickenpox. This has since been refuted, but experts agree that this particular variant is easier to spread than the common cold, influenza, and smallpox. Many believe that Delta spreads 50 percent faster than its Alpha predecessor. This is worrisome, as Alpha was already 50 percent more transmissible than the original version of COVID.

F Perry Wilson, MD of Yale Medicine explains that, in an unmitigated environment (one free of masks and vaccines), the average infected person would spread the initial COVID strain to 2.5 other people. That same environment could result in four people catching the Delta version. This might not seem like a major increase to some, but the realities of exponential growth are such that far more people will be infected in far less time — thereby straining a health care system that has already been struggling since COVID’s onset.

What Are the Symptoms?

In many ways, Delta feels like an entirely new pandemic. The differences in symptoms are particularly noteworthy. Unfortunately, many people are unaware that these differences exist, so they continue to look for the trademark symptoms of the original COVID, such as loss of smell and taste. As a result, they may not be aware that they are COVID-positive, even when they are symptomatic.

With Delta, symptoms can look noticeably different from one person to the next. That being said, the following complaints are especially common:

  • Excessive sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Sore throat

For many people, symptoms of the Delta variant resemble those associated with summer colds. This problem may play into the variant’s currently high rates of transmission, as infected individuals may not be as quick to get tested or to quarantine themselves to prevent spreading the disease to others.

Should Vaccinated People Be Worried?

The vaccines from Pfizer, Modern, and Johnson & Johnson appear to still be effective against the Delta variant, albeit less so than they were for the original COVID strain. Still, there is some risk of contracting the disease even with vaccination, as evidenced by the major breakout among vaccinated vacationers in Provincetown. Thankfully, those who have been vaccinated are extremely unlikely to end up in the hospital.

Caution is still warranted, as the latest research suggests that vaccinated people are capable of spreading the virus. Those with children (who cannot yet be vaccinated) would be especially wise to continue using mitigation strategies such as social distancing and wearing masks.

What About Delta Plus?

Delta is by no means the last variant we’ll see as the virus continues to evolve. Unfortunately, the staggering pace of this variant’s spread provides ample opportunities for mutations — particularly in areas with low vaccination rates. Already, one concerning mutation has appeared: Delta Plus.

Little is known at this point regarding this new threat, but health officials worry that it could be more dangerous due to its ability to bind to lung cells. The mutation may make some COVID treatments less effective — a huge concern when hospitals are already struggling to keep up with an alarmingly high volume of patients. Preliminary research shows little evidence of Delta Plus actually being more transmissible than the original Delta, however.

What Does This Say About the Future of the Pandemic?

Not long ago, many people felt confident that the pandemic would ease up and that we could return to some semblance of normal life. These hopes have since been dashed, especially as hospitalization rates rise and even vaccinated people suffer breakthrough cases. It’s becoming increasingly evident that COVID will be with us for quite some time.

It’s impossible to predict what, exactly, the future of COVID will look like, but it’s clear that aggressive action is needed to prevent additional, potentially worse strains of the disease. At this point, it’s imperative to avoid any mutation that could make COVID more resistant to the vaccine. The future is far from hopeless, but it’s once again time to accept that a tough road lies ahead.