The delta variant is spreading quickly in Hawaii. Here’s what you need to know
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii is seeing some of its highest COVID case counts since the start of the pandemic, prompting health officials to urge people to get vaccinated if they haven’t already.
The highly transmissible delta variant is being blamed for the record surge in infections.
According to state’s most recent figures, 80% of COVID cases in Hawaii are now the delta mutation. The variant is as contagious as the chickenpox.
So how does the delta variant change the safety precautions you need to take?
To understand how the mutation has changed the calculation, HNN spoke to Dr. Tarquin Collis ― Kaiser Permanente’s Chief of Infectious Diseases ― who broke down the impact the virus has on Hawaii and how to mitigate its spread.
Why is the delta variant more concerning?
While health experts are still learning more about the coronavirus and its various strains, the main concern of the delta variant is that it is more transmissible.
- “Preliminary science suggests that those who are infected with the delta variant shed more of it when we get sick, we may shed it earlier, and we may shed it for longer.”
He explained that “shedding” refers to the RNA that is shed when you take a nose swab to test for COVID. If you’re shedding a lot of RNA, you’re likely more infectious and shedding more of the virus.
- “Early data out of Scotland, Canada and Singapore suggested if you catch delta, you’re more likely to be hospitalized or die than if you had caught an older form of COVID.”
While more research is needed to prove that theory, Collis said COVID mainly manifests in shortness of breath and oxygen levels. In severe cases, other organs — besides the lungs — start to get affected and shut down. This may include kidneys or the heart.
- “It can make you sick in ways that are not just about pneumonia. It never fails to amaze me how sick this bug can make you.”
What impact do unvaccinated people have on communities?
- “I think it’s never been more dangerous than it is now to be unvaccinated. You have a virus that spreads a lot better than older forms of this virus, you have a virus that might be worse for you. When you work with it day in and day out and you see the difference between taking care of someone who happened to get infected despite vaccination and someone who had not been vaccinated and is profoundly ill — it just breaks your heart as a doctor to see that a lot of lives lost could have been prevented.”
Furthermore, he explained that becoming infected doesn’t only impact your health and the health of those around you, but it can affect your entire way of life.
- “There’s a risk to your actual employment by remaining unvaccinated, depending on what you do for a living. And in other states, some are making vaccine passes to enter restaurants and other businesses, which can restrict those who are not vaccinated. That’s a risk to your quality of life as well.”
What’s a “breakthrough” case and should the vaccinated be concerned?
When someone who is fully vaccinated catches COVID, it’s called a “breakthrough” case.
These cases underscore a key point: Vaccines are very effective but can’t offer 100% protection. The very good news is that vaccines are also highly effective in preventing serious illness from COVID.
- “It is important to emphasize that breakthrough infections, meaning folks who have been vaccinated and still catch COVID, are almost universally mild. Many of my patients who have been infected after vaccination feel either nothing, and we just pick it up on surveillance, or something that’s closer to a cold or an upper respiratory tract infection.”
He emphasized that more than 90% of hospitalizations at Kaiser are unvaccinated folks, who are filling up emergency rooms and ICU beds.
- “Folks who catch this without vaccine protecting them are ending up really, really sick.”
Collis said while it may be a little more likely to become infected with the delta variant compared to prior strains, the vaccine will prevent you from getting super sick.
Do the vaccinated need to take extra precautions now?
Collis explained that even if you are fully vaccinated, it is still important to be vigilant and take precautions depending on who you live with — especially thinking about kupuna, those immunocompromised and children who aren’t old enough to get the vaccine.
- “We’re all going to have to come to our own sort of level of comfort as to what makes sense. But I think this would be the time to really think about not going to big indoor events, even if you’re fully vaccinated. I think even crowded outdoor events, if you’re fully vaccinated might be a good idea to wear a mask.”
He encourages “thoughtful masking” and to weigh the risks the virus can have on your life and those you interact with.
- “You should always be paying attention to what’s happening around you. Even if you’re fully vaccinated. Staying masked still makes sense.”
If you plan on traveling, whether it be for work or to see loved ones, Collis advised to use the best protection when flying in an airplane, such as using N95 masks. He also suggested not eating when everyone else eats or trying to eat before and after the plane ride rather than during the flight.
Why do younger people need to get vaccinated?
Even though data shows that younger populations may not experience as severe COVID symptoms compared to kupuna, Collis said that those infected can still be vectors for the virus.
- “If you get infected, maybe it’s OK for you. But you might end up hurting someone that you really care about, who’s older or immunocompromised.”
If a younger person gets infected, they could also still experience lingering effects from COVID.
- “While mortality rates among younger COVID patients are low, percentages of people who have variations of long-COVID, or long standing symptoms, are profoundly high. And that’s totally worth avoiding, because that can wreck a school year or relationship or a job pretty quickly.”
Hawaii is 60% fully vaccinated. Why are we seeing so many new cases?
While more people are vaccinated compared to the start of the pandemic, Collis explained that COVID is circulating through the population who hasn’t gotten their shots.
- “It’s affecting a larger proportion of them because it’s so contagious. When you infect enough people, you’re going to see a ton of people getting sick and ending up in the hospital and the ER.”
He added that the more infectious a virus, the higher percentage of immunity is needed in a population to limit its spread — meaning that more people need to get vaccinated.
Is COVID here to stay?
- “As an infectious disease doctor, I think it’s very clear, this virus is going to be with us in the long term. We’ve only eliminated one infectious disease in the history of infectious diseases, and that was smallpox — COVID is no smallpox, this won’t be the second virus that we eliminate by a long stretch.”
He said that COVID has adapted really well to human health and continues to adapt better and better, which is seen in the delta variant.
- “For those who think, you know, let me just hang in there and let this thing die down and maybe I’ll never catch it. I think that’s not a strategy that really works.”
What’s the best case scenario for beating COVID?
- “My hope is that it settles down ultimately into something that’s more seasonal and more manageable. And that we have a high enough vaccine penetrance that it becomes something closer to the flu, in terms of risk in all of our lives.”
As COVID continues to impact our daily lives, Collis said the no. 1 way to fight the virus is to get vaccinated.
- “It’s never too late to get the vaccine. For those that are are holding out on vaccination, I would really urge people to reexamine those assumptions and talk with someone that you trust on the medical side about about the risks to you and what that represents. COVID is a preventable infection at this point, in terms of severe illness, and these vaccines are quite remarkable. It’s not just for the community, it’s for your own self to really think this through and make a choice — that I think a lot of other people are making — to go for vaccination to get yourself to a safer place.”
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