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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: What to know about the delta variant


Pharmacist and 1995 UNC alumna Sue Patel prepares a syringe with a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021 in the Friday Center on Chapel Hill.

The original COVID-19 strain was daunting on its own, with record hospitalizations and countless deaths. With the rise in variants of coronavirus, the fear surrounding it hasn’t slowed down.

So what is the delta variant, and what does it really mean for post-pandemic life?

What is the delta variant?

Most viruses constantly change through mutation, which differentiate them from other variants in circulation. Multiple variants of SARS-CoV-2, better known as COVID-19, have been documented not only in the U.S., but also across the globe. 

The delta variant is currently the predominant variant in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and has caused a significant increase in new cases — reversing what was a steady decline since January.  

The symptoms of the delta variant appear to be the same as the original strain of COVID-19; however, doctors have seen that individuals may experience these symptoms at a faster rate.

How serious is it?

The delta variant has been identified to be more than two times contagious as previous variants. Some data has suggested that the variant may cause more severe illness than previous variants in unvaccinated individuals. While unvaccinated people pose the greatest risk of transmission, breakthrough infections across vaccinated people are also possible.

Researchers have identified that individuals infected with the delta variant caused a higher viral load — or amount of virus in the body — than other variants of the virus. People with high viral loads are more likely to transmit the virus to others.

The COVID-19 vaccines that are approved or authorized in the U.S. are highly effective at preventing severe disease and death, including against the delta variant. They play a significant role in limiting the spread of the virus and minimizing the risk of having severe symptoms. In addition, wearing a mask and social distancing are methods to slow transmission.

Do I need a booster? 

The delta variant isn’t the first variant, and it isn’t the last. More COVID-19 strains are likely to emerge, such as the lambda variant that has already arisen in South America. In order to combat these, it is imperative that a majority of the population be vaccinated — and eventually, update their vaccination.

There is evidence that suggests that the protection offered by both shots begins to decrease after six months. This has pushed countries like Israel and Germany to already begin offering booster shots. The shot will boost an individual’s immune response, taking into account the variants that we’ve seen arise. 

Booster shots of the vaccine will be available sometime in September to fully vaccinated adults in the U.S., according to a mid-August announcement made by the Biden administration. However, there may be a delay in booster rollout depending on data analysis and FDA approval.

Where and when should I get the booster shot?

People can become eligible for a third shot of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine eight months after their second dose. If you received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, no booster dose will be available until October at the earliest, given its later authorization in the U.S.

Immunocompromised individuals who received either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines can obtain a supplemental dose through UNC. This includes people who have had a solid organ transplant, have advanced or untreated HIV, are undergoing chemotherapy or receiving other immune-suppressing treatment. 

It is likely that the general public will soon become eligible for supplemental vaccine doses sometime before the end of the year. Third doses will be available at county health departments, pharmacies and health systems, including Duke Health, WakeMed and UNC Health — and could potentially be offered on campus.

Until then, the best thing you can do to protect yourself from the delta variant is get vaccinated, continue social distancing and mask up. And in the meantime, keep your eye out in the next several weeks for information on supplemental COVID-19 booster shots.


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