Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fear the delta variant of the coronavirus is more contagious than initially thought, while maintaining that vaccines still offer protection against the infectious disease.
An internal document from the CDC, first obtained by The Washington Post, sheds light on how easily the delta variant can spread — and what it means for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.
The delta variant, which experts fear may lead to more severe illness, has spurred a noticeable spike in COVID-19 cases throughout the country. Last week, the CDC said 83% of cases were of the highly transmissible variant first identified in India in December 2020.
As contagious as chickenpox: ‘This is serious’
The variant is as contagious as the chickenpox and is more transmissible than the viruses that cause Ebola, the common cold and the seasonal flu, according to the CDC document.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, confirmed the authenticity of the document to CNN and echoed concerns mentioned by health experts worldwide.
“I think people need to understand that we’re not crying wolf here,” she told CNN. “This is serious.”
The research cited in the document led the CDC to change its guidance for people vaccinated against COVID-19, The Washington Post reported.
The CDC updated its COVID-19 guidance earlier this week, with Walensky saying vaccinated people in “substantial and high transmission” areas should wear masks indoors, McClatchy News reported. The agency had earlier said people who were vaccinated did not need to wear a face mask indoors.
“The data makes a pretty compelling justification for why we need to go back to mask wearing and other public health measures,” Dr. Charles Chiu, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, told USA Today. “I do think it’s because of the delta variant.”
‘The war has changed.’ What it means for you
Breakthrough cases of the delta variant for people who are vaccinated may be as transmissible as infections in unvaccinated individuals, the CDC said in its presentation.
“What we’ve learned … is that when we examine the rare or breakthrough infections and we look at the amount of virus in those people, it is pretty similar to the amount of virus in unvaccinated people,” Walensky told ABC News.
The CDC also says infections from the delta variant are “likely more severe.”
However, the risk for vaccinated people to contract delta is three times less likely than those who are unvaccinated. The risk of severe disease or death is also reduced by 10 times among the vaccinated population, the CDC said.
The CDC estimates there will be 35,000 symptomatic cases of the variant each week among the 162 million Americans who are vaccinated. The CDC says 57.7% of people ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated and 66.9% have received at least one dose.
“The more we learn about this virus and the delta variation, the more we have to be worried and concerned,” President Joe Biden said earlier this week. “And only one thing we know for sure: If those other hundred million people got vaccinated, we’d be in a very different world.”
The vaccines are 88% effective in preventing symptomatic illness from the variant. Based on data from other countries where delta has spread, the vaccines are 75% to 85% effective against delta, according to the CDC.
The data also shows people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 and are immunocompromised or taking immunosuppressive medication still receive protection from the coronavirus, but are at a higher risk of symptomatic infection and hospitalization compared to the general vaccinated population.
These findings, according to The New York Times, “suggest that people with weak immune systems should wear masks even in places that do not have high transmission of the virus. So should vaccinated Americans who are in contact with young children, older adults, or otherwise vulnerable people.”
The next steps for the CDC, according to the presentation, are to “acknowledge the war has changed.”
“The measures we need to get this under control – they’re extreme. The measures you need are extreme,” Walensky told CNN.