How Best to Protect Yourself During the Delta Variant Surge
Stop us if you’ve heard this before: COVID is surging nationwide and it’s still a dangerous disease — especially for the unvaccinated. Over the last six weeks, cases of the Delta variant have grown nationally and hospital wards are filling again.
Most U.S. states are experiencing substantial or high levels of community transmission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, thanks mainly to the Delta variant. The daily average of newly reported cases of COVID was more than 140,000 in mid-August, higher than the same period during summer 2020. The surge numbers, however, are about half of the peak rate of infections in January, but the numbers are expected to go up in the coming weeks. Counties with lower vaccination rates are on average experiencing more infections.
FDA grants full approval to Pfizer mRNA COVID vaccine
The Food and Drug Administration has given full approval to the Pfizer COVID-19 mRNA vaccine. It’s brand name is Comirnaty and the vaccine is approved for individuals 16 and older. The vaccine, which was granted an emergency use authorization (EUA) by the FDA in December, is available to adolescents 12 to 15 and as a third dose for certain immunocompromised individuals under an EUA.
The approval was given Aug. 23. Some vaccine-hesitant people have been waiting for full FDA approval; the approval also smooths the way for more employer mandates.
The agency is still reviewing Moderna’s application for full vaccine approval.
Should I be worried about breakthrough infections?
If you’re vaccinated, there’s good news. Most serious illnesses related to the current surge are in unvaccinated individuals, and breakthrough infections causing hospitalization in people who have had the COVID vaccine remain rare.
The CDC no longer tracks infections of vaccinated individuals that do not involve hospitalization or mortality, but a new unpublished study from the Mayo Clinic suggests the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are less effective at preventing infection of the Delta variant versus other variants, but both are still very effective at preventing serious illness.
Another recent study of people who had a previous COVID infection but have not been vaccinated found they were 2.3 times more likely to be re-infected with COVID than people who have been vaccinated.
Should I wear a mask?
The guidance from the CDC is different depending on whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated. For vaccinated individuals, the agency recommends you wear a mask when you’re indoors in public in areas of high or substantial transmission. The new guidelines, released last month, also recommend vaccinated individuals wear masks when in crowds outdoors and if you or someone in your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk of severe disease or unvaccinated.
If you are unvaccinated, the guidelines recommend you should wear a mask in indoor public spaces or outside where you will be in close contact with others, regardless of the spread of COVID in your area.
There is a federal mandate in place for masks on all public transportation.
Do I need a third dose?
The FDA authorized a third dose for people who have compromised immune systems — especially transplant recipients. Earlier studies have shown a limited immune response to the vaccines in immunocompromised people. There are studies that suggest a third dose may not be as effective as social distancing and other methods to protect the immunocompromised.
As for everyone else who is fully vaccinated through Moderna or Pfizer, the FDA and CDC are recommending an additional booster eight months after full vaccination. Like most vaccines, the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine will wane over time. The purpose of the booster is to bolster the vaccine, shoring up your protection.
A trio of studies have been released or published in the last couple of months detailing the long-term effects some people experience after a COVID infection. These symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle pain, joint pain, headache, cough, chest pain, altered smell, altered taste and diarrhea.
In a study published this summer in Nature, 61 percent patients (most who were not hospitalized with COVID) had persistent symptoms six months after initial COVID-19 illness, with the most common symptoms being fatigue (37%), difficulty concentrating (26%), disturbed smell and/or taste (25%), memory problems (24%) and labored breathing (21%).
Because symptoms vary so much, doctors are still struggling to treat the condition. Studies are ongoing to determine a best course of treatment for long COVID symptoms.
COVID remains dangerous, especially for the unvaccinated. New diagnoses and hospitalizations have surged. Deaths remain low but are rising and the CDC predicts a sharp increase over the next few weeks.
Updated August 23, 2021