Parents might be wondering what it means for their families now that the COVID-19 Delta variant accounts for more than 80% of coronavirus cases in the United States, particularly amid the increasing talk about wearing masks in public again.
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We spoke with UChicago pediatric infectious disease Dr. Allison Bartlett about what Delta means for unvaccinated family members, future COVID-19 mutations and the recent Chicago Public School decision to require masks this fall.
The Q&A is edited for clarity.
What’s the number one thing parents should know about the Delta variant?
The most important thing to know about the Delta variant is that it is more contagious than the initial strain of COVID that is circulating but it does not appear to be causing more severe infections.
How do you compare this strain’s severity to other variations or the original COVID strain?
Overall, we’re not seeing a higher rate of hospitalizations or a higher rate of people dying from the Delta variant. Unvaccinated or immunocompromised people can get very sick and die from the Delta variant. Kids, as we’ve seen throughout the whole pandemic, tend not to get critically ill like we are seeing with adults.
The CDC labeled Delta as a variant of concern with three other variants. What does this mean in relation to safety for unvaccinated people?
It is more easily transmitted from person to person and a lot of that has to do with the amount of virus that’s present when someone is infected. Although vaccinated individuals are protected from getting severe disease, they can become infected with the Delta variant and have minimal or no symptoms. For those individuals who are vaccinated and infected, their risk of spreading to other individuals is lower than if they weren’t vaccinated, but it’s not zero.
What does it mean when a virus has variants?
A virus’s job is to infect people and to get better at infecting people. Viruses are always evolving to get smarter. This variant has figured out how to spread more effectively, which is exactly what it needs to be doing as a virus. That’s going to continue for as long as there are a lot of viruses out there in the community until we have more herd immunity and less spread overall. The Delta variant is concerning because it spreads much more rapidly but I worry about the next variant and the one after that and the one after that. If they spread better and make [people sicker], that’s worse than where we are right now.
What is or isn’t surprising about the Delta variant, now that it’s responsible for more than 80% of infections?
That is expected. This strain is very good at spreading from person to person; it’s outcompeting all the other strains. Based on what we saw in India and the U.K., it was essentially a matter of time before it became the dominant strain here in the U.S. because the overall rates of vaccinations and mask-wearing aren’t enough to keep the spread down.
Is another surge starting?
I don’t see high spikes as we’ve seen [before] but there is absolutely a significant increase in COVID infections, driven in part by the contagiousness by this Delta variant and in part by the relaxation in other preventative measures, including vaccinations.
You said earlier you’re a parent of twin 11-year-olds and a 9-year-old. As restrictions ease, what do you recommend for parents with unvaccinated children?
Anything outdoors is safer than indoors — with the caveat that if it’s extremely crowded, outdoor activities, like Lollapalooza, are probably on the riskier side. Anything that can be outdoors is much safer. In indoor settings, especially when it’s a crowded indoor setting and it’s not folks who you know and you don’t know their vaccination status, it’s safer to wear a mask. …Vaccinations are the long-standing defense we have. Until everyone is vaccinated, the masks are number two in our ability to protect children and anybody else who’s unvaccinated.
What does the latest data tell us about what’s going to happen?
The data shows it’s the dominant circulating strain now. We’re seeing more infections, more hospitalizations than we have seen in previous months. I don’t really see a change in that increase until there are more vaccinations or we go back to more mask-wearing.
What are your thoughts on CPS requiring masks for all students next month?
I’m completely in agreement with the American Academy of Pediatrics: kids need to be back in school learning in person and anyone under the age of 12, at this moment, cannot be vaccinated. Even our older kids — some may be vaccinated, some may not — I don’t see a voluntary system working. …Even if a child wouldn’t particularly get sick if they had COVID, they would be excluded from the classroom for 10-14 days and that’s something we can avoid by preventing the spread of COVID.
Editor’s Note: As of July 27, the CDC also recommends that people who are fully vaccinated resume wearing masks indoors and encourages everyone in K-12 schools to wear a mask regardless of vaccine status. And as of Aug. 4, masks are required in all Pre-K to Grade 12 schools and daycares in Illinois.
In a livestream on July 22, 2021, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady says the average case rate per day has nearly doubled since last week: “We’re now averaging 108 cases per day,” Arwady says. “That is up from 58 a week ago.”
More than 280,000 Chicagoans have contracted the virus, according to city data.
Arwady says she expects COVID-19 numbers to rise but doesn’t expect the health system to be overwhelmed.
In Chicago, 51.6% are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. The city ranges between low risk and lower risk in its current Phase 5.
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