Are vaccinated people safe from the delta variant of COVID?

are vaccinated people safe from the delta variant
Photo via Jernej Furman/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The delta variant is now responsible for 83% of COVID-19 cases in the United States, according to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, as breakthrough infections continue to make news, it’s worth knowing this: Are vaccinated people actually safe from the delta variant?

During a July 16 White House press briefing, Walensky referred to the coronavirus as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” But in the days since then, the delta variant has become even more dominant. “This is a dramatic increase up from 50% for the week of July 3,” Walensky told lawmakers.

Said Walensky: “There is a clear message that is coming through. We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage because unvaccinated people are at risk, and communities that are fully vaccinated are generally faring well.”

She’s not wrong. More than 97% of people currently hospitalized with the delta variant have not been fully vaccinated. Yet, there continue to be reports of breakthrough cases, which occur when vaccinated people become infected with COVID.

Out of more than 160 million fully vaccinated people in the U.S., the CDC reported just 5,492 cases of hospitalization or death as of July 12. That’s .000034% of vaccinated people. It’s unclear how many of these breakthrough infections were from the delta variant—but delta has become the dominant worldwide strain.

The CDC currently only tracks breakthrough infections that lead to hospitalization and death. However, some states are documenting even mild breakthrough cases. For example, Massachusetts has reported about 4,450 total confirmed breakthrough cases—or about 0.1% of all fully vaccinated people.

Though these cases are undoubtedly rare—and even less likely to be severe—most experts agree that it’s best to avoid contracting even a mild case of the virus.

Betty Jean “BJ” Ezell—a vaccine hesitancy outreach coordinator for Citrus County, Florida—told the Washington Post that it’s still wise to mask up or socially distance at even outdoor gatherings with others who may not be vaccinated, as “the delta variant has shown that it’s rampant and unforgiving in its ability to spread.”

“If you yourself have been fully vaccinated for at least two weeks and if people you are spending time with have been fully vaccinated for a least two weeks, you can feel relatively safe about not having to mask indoors,” said Ezell.

When it comes to settings with a higher risk of potential exposure, however, it still seems better to err on the side of caution.

Yonatan Grad, an associate professor at the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard, advises people to assess risk “not just through a binary lens of ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe.’”

Citing an experimental outdoor music festival in the Netherlands in early July that led to over 1,000 COVID-19 infections, Grad says your best bet is to stay aware of your exposure to others. “’Safe’ can imply that you’re totally protected,” he said. “The goal for many people is to be at the lowest risk possible.”

Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of Clinical Affairs at Baylor College of Medicine, told ABC13 KTRK News that while being vaccinated protects you from severe disease, he still recommends that people avoid indoor, crowded places.

“When you walk into an environment, pause, look at it, ask yourself, ‘Does this seem safe? Am I going to be spending prolonged periods face-to-face, elbow-to-elbow, shoulder-to-shoulder with other people?’” said McDeavitt. “If you are, leave or put your mask on and try to maintain your distance.”

Another area of concern is the risk of long COVID-19. Though data is still limited, even mild cases can manifest into long-haul symptoms that can last for months or even years.

“Even if you don’t end up in the hospital, there’s certainly a possibility that you could end up with long COVID,” University of Saskatchewan virologist Angela Rasmussen said, via NPR. “So, the safest thing to do is to avoid being infected altogether.”

Getting a second dose is crucial for vaccinated people to be safe against the delta variant

Some experts once extolled the virtues of a single dose of the two-dose vaccines as providing moderate protection from COVID-19 infection. But with the highly transmissible delta variant now in the mix, a report published in the Nature science journal on July 8 found that a single shot of the two-dose vaccines provided “barely” any protection.

The researchers also estimated that two doses of a vaccine provided about 95% protection against the virus. Likewise, a separate study conducted in the U.K. found that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine were 96% effective against hospitalization from the delta variant.

“The data from the U.K. suggest that the protection from a single dose of the vaccine is low for the delta variant,” explained Grad. “There’s a big jump in the level of protection with the second dose for the delta variant specifically.”

In other words, people who are only partially vaccinated are not safe from the delta variant.

Joel Wertheim, an associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at the University of California at San Diego, also stressed the importance of getting the second dose.

“We have this large swath of America that has only gotten one dose, and if we could only get them to get a second shot, I think that’s a group where we could make a big difference,” Wertheim told the Washington Post.

“If you’ve been slow about getting a second dose, now is the time,” added Wertheim. “There’s no evidence to suggest that waiting longer [to get the second dose] is worse.”

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Sources: Washington Post, NPR, Healthline, ABC13 News

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