Here’s why you should be concerned about the Delta variant – especially if you’re unvaccinated

And here’s why vaccination really is the best defense

About 6% of the U.S. population has tested positive for the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus.

Dr. Kalisha Hill, chief medical officer of AMITA Health Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, said it’s unknown if the variant has reached Will County.

But the goal is to decrease the transmission of COVID-19 and all its variants by continuing to vaccinate people, she added.

Steve Brandy, spokesman for the Will County Health Department, agreed.

“Studies show that two doses of the Pfizer shots are effective against the Delta strain, according to the National Institutes of Health,” Brandy said in the email. “Two doses of the Pfizer vaccine were shown to be 88% effective against the Delta variant.”

The main concern is that the Delta variant is 60% more transmissible than the original strain that circulated at the beginning of the pandemic, said Dr. Christopher Udovich, medical director at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox.

The Delta variant also represents about 60% of the cases in the United Kingdom, Udovich said.

“And in some of the UK studies, it showed it might be a little bit more severe in terms of illness and hospitalization risk,” Udovich said. “It may be more deadly.”

Although Udovich said he is encouraged to see case numbers are dropping – Silver Cross had only 11 inpatients with COVID-19 on Wednesday, June 9, – there’s always a chance the virus will flare up “until we stomp it out and get rid of it.”

“All it takes is one variant to change us around,” Udovich said.

Why the mutation?

It’s not unusual that COVID-19 has mutated. Viruses mutate all the time, Udovich said. Sometimes they become less transmissible, sometimes more transmissible, he added.

But as this virus moves through the population and as more people are developing immunity to it, the virus is making adjustments, Hill said. It’s changing its own anatomy to defend itself against people’s immune systems, Hill said.

“The virus just gets smarter,” Hill said. “This is why we encourage people to get vaccinated.”

Antibodies, Vitamin D and blood types

People who have had COVID-19 should not rely on their antibodies to protect them, Hill said.

Some people’s antibodies last a few months. Some last a little longer. The level of antibodies and the length of time they last is inconsistent and varies from person to person, Hill said.

So a previous COVID-19 infection is not a good defense against the variants, Hill said.

“It’s not safe to say that, ‘If I’ve had COVID that I’m not going to get the variants,’” Hill said. “That is simply not true.”

Having a robust vitamin D level or O-negative blood is not a good defense against COVID-19, either, Hill said.

All the good reasons to get vaccinated

Now people who are vaccinated still can catch the virus or test positive for it. But vaccinated people are protected against severe illness and death, Hill said.

Udovich said no vaccine gives 100% protection against illness. But it does “cut down” the chances of getting it.

“And if you do contract it, the illness is much less severe,” Udovich said.

She understands people’s hesitancy and their desire for “watching and waiting.” But people have been getting vaccinated for six months now, she said. Side effects have been rare and the risk for having any are low, much lower than testing positive for COVID-19 and becoming severely ill or dying from the virus, she added.

“The benefits of being vaccinated, not only for yourself but for you loved ones, far outweigh any risk of taking the vaccine,” Hill said.

But just in case, people are monitored for 15 to 30 minutes after they receive the vaccine. And then if patients have side effects later, they should contact their health care provider.

In fact, any time people have any type of vaccine or new medication, they should promptly report to their doctors any new symptoms or side effects, Hill said.

Udovich said people should do the same if – whether they are vaccinated or not yet vaccinated – develop a cough, runny nose, fever and/or body aches.

Face masks: yes or no?

Should vaccinated people still wear face masks to add an extra layer of protection against the variant, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said face masks aren’t needed?

Hill said the CDC never said face masks weren’t needed. The CDC said face masks were not required. Face masks do add another level of protection against the variants even for people who are vaccinated, she said.

What the CDC does say is that the risk of virus transmission is low among fully vaccinated people who interact with other people who are fully vaccinated, Hill said. People who are vaccinated still may want to wear face masks around unvaccinated people and people who merely say they are vaccinated, Hill said.

Hill said people should use good judgment and talk to their medical providers about their own unique risks and the best ways to protect themselves.

Udovich has one final message for people who are already vaccinated: encourage people to get vaccinated. Until people are vaccinated, they still are at risk for getting severely ill and dying from COVID-19. They must continue to wear face masks and their freedom in social situations continues to be limited, he added.

“We want people to get immune, to prevent any new variants from developing and overwhelm the health care system,” Udovich said. “We just want people to be well.”

Denise  Unland

Denise M. Baran-Unland

Denise M. Baran-Unland is the features editor for The Herald-News in Joliet. She covers a variety of human interest stories. She also writes the long-time weekly tribute feature “An Extraordinary Life about local people who have died. She studied journalism at the College of St. Francis in Joliet, now the University of St. Francis.