Delta variant threatens window of herd immunity opportunity

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Jul. 17—ALBANY — There is an ominous undertone, a touch of frustration mixed with the surface optimism, as Scott Steiner and Dr. Eddie Black talk about the emergence of the so-called delta variant of the coronavirus that has emerged as the latest health emergency related to the pandemic that has gripped the world for almost a year and a half.

Both talk of a narrow window of opportunity that, because of some people's reluctance to take vaccinations that have so far proved adept at stopping the spread of the virus, may be closing.

"I certainly hope — and have a firm belief — that we can still contain the spread of the virus if enough people get vaccinated," Black, the director of emergency medicine at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, said Friday morning. "We're fighting against nature with a window of opportunity to reduce the disease and perhaps eradicate the virus. But the longer we wait to protect ourselves against the virus, the more it's going to mutate. And at some point there is a possibility that the virus will mutate into a strain that is able to resist the current vaccines that we have."

Steiner, too, talks about that closing window of opportunity to achieve herd immunity through vaccinations currently being administered.

"A virus's goal is to survive," the Phoebe Putney Health System president/CEO said. "It will continue to reconfigure its makeup as a means of survival, mutating until it can withstand the current means we have to fight it. We've had a window open since we started vaccinating the public that could allow us to reach herd immunity and perhaps be done with this. But that window's only going to stay open for so long."

A recent CDC report showed that the delta variant, which is rampant in certain areas of states like Florida and Missouri, has led to measurable increases in positive COVID-19 cases in 47 states. In Georgia, positive tests increased by 143% over a 10-day period.

And while both Black and Steiner said that specific test kits are needed to determine if an infected person has the delta variant of the virus, they both have a wary eye on local increases.

"We had seven or eight people at Phoebe 10 days ago," Steiner said. "We're up to 20 today (Friday). And there are parts of the country where this thing is exploding, levels are higher than they've ever had.

"Some hospitals are reporting that 90% of the new patients are being placed on ventilators."

The CDC report also offers another telling bit of information: Of the patients confirmed with the delta variant, in some regions 90% or more are unvaccinated.

"We keep thinking this thing is going to turn, but vaccinations locally have slowed to what I'd call a trickle," Steiner said. "For whatever reason, there are so many people who refuse to be vaccinated. Of the 160 people who've been admitted to our facilities since April 1, 93% were unvaccinated.

"One trend that also shows how the vaccines are working locally, of our population 65 and older, 85% in Dougherty County have been vaccinated. Where our average age of patients during the worst part of the vaccine was 62-64 years old, now our average age is 48-50."

Black explained that the delta variant is one of several COVID-19 mutations, and it has become a huge health concern primarily because of the change in the spike of its protein. But, the physician noted, there is a common factor where the strain is most prominent.

"Around the country," he said, "we're seeing an upturn in cases where the vaccine numbers are low. I can't give any recent numbers because they're still being compiled. But what has become apparent is with this new strain, where numbers are going up there is a wide division between the vaccinated and unvaccinated."

Steiner said Phoebe, along with other health care facilities, will redouble its efforts to get people in the region vaccinated.

"Look, there are 10-15 percent of the population that, for political or whatever reasons, are not going to get vaccinated no matter what," he said. "We have to focus on those people in the middle, the ones who just haven't made the decision to get vaccinated. We must continue to educate them and get our mobile units out where they are.

"Some people refuse to listen. But we just have to keep talking about the facts, keep talking about the science. It's just so frustrating, though. We could bury this thing in three months. The vaccines are available; people could get the first shot and in a couple of days be 40% protected. In seven to 10 days, that protection would be 50-70 percent, and shortly after getting the second shot they would be 90 percent-plus protected."

But, as both men lament, the window for such opportunity is gradually closing.

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