The COVID-19 delta variant accounts for more than 80 percent of sampled positive cases in Indiana. State health officials have pointed to the variant as the main driver of Indiana’s recent climb in new cases and hospitalizations.
Members of the Indiana Two-Way and the Midwest Checkup asked us about the delta variant and its future effect on Indiana. To join the Indiana Two-Way, text “Indiana” to 73224. To join the Midwest Check-up, text “health” to 73224.
What is the delta variant?
Delta is a variant of COVID-19, first identified in India in December 2020. It’s a highly contagious virus – estimated to cause viral loads 1,000 times more than the original virus.
Dr. Robin Ledyard, Community Health Network chief medical officer, said it’s similar to chicken pox.
“If you lived through chicken pox, you know that if you were in the same room with another person with chicken pox, you were almost guaranteed to get chicken pox,” Ledyard said. “And so, if you think about that, if you’re in the same room as someone who has COVID – even if they’re vaccinated and they’re shedding the virus – you’re almost guaranteed to get COVID.”
Yale University researchers say it’s spreading 50 percent faster than previous COVID-19 variants.
When will this new wave of cases peak?
From July 3 to Aug. 3, the number of Hoosiers hospitalized for COVID-19 has more than doubled. But Ledyard said how the delta variant has moved through other countries may help hospitals estimate the timing of Indiana’s peak.
“We should, you know, see that spike happen probably in September – mid-September. And then we may see some increase in hospitalizations continue,” Ledyard said. “And then hopefully, we’ll get that sharp decrease down.”
The monthly average for cases from June to July more than doubled. The same happened to hospitalizations.
It’s important to note: based on data from the last six months in Indiana, your chance of testing positive for COVID-19 if you are unvaccinated is about 1 in 34. If you’re vaccinated, it's about 1 in 467.
What about breakthrough cases? Are the vaccines still effective? How much less effective are they against delta?
There have been a small handful of studies done on how effective different COVID-19 vaccines are against the delta variant. For the original strain of the virus and most of the variants, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines boasted an efficacy rate of greater than 90 percent. At the beginning of July, Johnson & Johnson said a trial had measured its vaccine at 85 percent efficacy against the delta variant.
Breakthrough cases happen though, because none of the vaccines are 100 percent effective. In Indiana, as of Aug. 5, of the 2,967,326 fully vaccinated Hoosiers, 5,323 tested positive for the virus.
Of that, 185 were hospitalized and 69 died.
Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, told PBS Newshour that breakthrough cases can be limited if everyone gets vaccines – essentially, “the unvaccinated are putting the vaccinated at risk.”
Indiana consistently ranks near the bottom of states by population fully vaccinated.
How bad will it get in Indiana? Will Indiana officials reinstate restrictions again?
Dr. Ledyard estimates Indiana would peak at about half the cases and hospitalizations it saw over the winter – based on how much of the state is currently vaccinated. That’s pretty similar across the board – about half of the U.S. is fully vaccinated. Nearly 3 million Hoosiers are fully vaccinated.
“This is a pandemic – as has been said – of the unvaccinated right now. And we need to take that seriously,” she said.
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As to whether or not we’ll see a return to COVID-19 restrictions? So far, no.
Gov. Eric Holcomb decided not to reimpose COVID-19 restrictions during the last week of July. He defended that decision, saying this is a very different situation than March 2020.
But he also pointed to a focus on personal responsibility and vaccines.
“The role of our state government is to provide the opportunity and we’ve made it easy," Holcomb said. "We have tried to remove every barrier for individuals to be safe, to be vaccinated.”
During the Indiana General Assembly’s session earlier this year, they passed several laws in response to Holcomb’s and local health officials’ actions in response to COVID-19.
Local health officials will have to work with county and local government to put mask orders or other precautions in place. That is already happening. But state health officials have repeated that lawmakers have preferred local control, and they will respect that.
How do we avoid a wave like last winter’s?
Get vaccinated and follow the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on masking.
Ledyard said wearing a mask, social distancing, getting vaccinated and hand-washing all contribute to limiting the spread of COVID-19.
What about the lambda variant?
The lambda variant was first identified in Peru, and has been identified in several states in the U.S.
NPR reports that the lambda variant carries a number of mutations with suspected implications, such as potential increased transmissibility or possible increased resistance to neutralizing antibodies, the WHO says. But it says the full extent of those mutations' impact isn't yet well understood and will need further study.
But some very, very early studies are showing the potential for vaccine resistance – but those findings are early and have not been peer-reviewed. The strain has not been labeled by the CDC as a variant of concern or variant of interest yet.