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As COVID cases surge again — here’s what you need to know.

Now more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing a new surge in cases as the highly transmissible Delta variant spreads across the U.S. (and the world).

With the variant considered more than 50% more contagious than the original COVID strain, should you be worried — and if you’re fully vaccinated, are you protected?

Geisinger infectious diseases specialist Dr. Mark Shelly weighs in.

Why is the COVID-19 virus mutating?

All viruses mutate. In fact, it’s common to have multiple strains of the same virus spreading at the same time, like what we’re seeing with COVID-19 variants.

“The influenza virus is a perfect example of this,” explains Dr. Shelly. “The flu virus mutates each year and we adjust our approach to match it. Like the flu virus, we monitor how the COVID-19 virus code changes to adjust our approach and understanding of it.”

Most mutations are harmless, but some make a virus that’s more contagious, for example. That’s what we’re seeing with the COVID-19 Delta variant now. 

“The Delta variant has been labeled a ‘variant of concern’ because of its increased transmissibility,” adds Dr. Shelly. 

What is the Delta variant?

The COVID-19 Delta variant originally surfaced in late 2020. Since then, it’s spread and is now the dominant variant of COVID-19 in many countries, including the United States. In fact, the Delta variant makes up more than 90% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. today.

“This percentage is higher in some states, especially those with lower vaccination rates,” says Dr. Shelly.

So far, scientists know that the Delta variant is more transmissible than other COVID-19 variants. And people who haven’t been fully vaccinated are most at risk.

“This COVID-19 variant may be more likely to evade the body’s defenses, and it’s likely to show up in people with partial immunity,” says Dr. Shelly. “The best course of action now is getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and taking precautionary measures, like practicing good hand hygiene, wearing a mask and physical distancing in public if you’re not fully vaccinated.”

Do the COVID vaccines work against the Delta variant?

So far, studies have shown that COVID-19 vaccines available from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are effective against some COVID-19 variants, including the Delta variant. “None of the vaccines are 100% effective against preventing illness, but serious infections in those who are fully vaccinated appear to be rare,” adds Dr. Shelly.

Even though the vaccine provides protection against Delta, you can still spread it to others. “This is why the CDC has recommended that everyone, even those who are fully vaccinated, wear a mask in public indoor settings if they’re in an area of substantial or high transmission,” says Dr. Shelly. “Most counties in Pennsylvania are quickly approaching this level.” 

If you’re still considering getting the vaccine, COVID-19 variants underscore why it’s a good idea — for yourself and your loved ones, including children.

“A study conducted in the United Kingdom showed that children and adults under 50 were 2.5 times more likely to become infected with the Delta variant,” says Dr. Shelly. “It’s important to remember that COVID doesn’t just impact older adults and those with chronic conditions. Everyone is at risk.” 

If you’ve been fully vaccinated, you may wonder if you need a booster shot. Right now, there’s no concrete answer. “Scientists are still studying whether, or when, a booster might be necessary,” adds Dr. Shelly.

How are variants diagnosed and treated?

Today, we can detect the COVID-19 virus, even in its variant forms. And while strain identification is important, it doesn’t impact how we diagnose or treat those with COVID-19.

Regardless of the presence of variants, we can’t stress enough the importance of getting your COVID-19 vaccine. It’s your best protection against COVID-19 and its variants like Delta.

“The more people we vaccinate, the better chance we have at getting ahead of variants,” says Dr. Shelly. “The less virus there is circulating through our communities, the less chance it has to mutate.”

Next steps:

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