The coronavirus's Delta variant, which was first identified in India late last year and which now accounts for approximately 20 percent of COVID-19 cases in the United States, is expected to become the dominant strain of the virus in the coming months — if not sooner, according to experts.
That is because it appears to be roughly 60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha variant, which is currently dominant in the U.S. and is itself more transmissible than the original, “wild-type” coronavirus variant.
New data suggests that the Delta variant, in addition to being more infectious, may also double the risk of hospitalization for those who are not vaccinated.
Given that there’s now a more transmissible and potentially more dangerous variant circulating in the country, the focus has turned to young people 12 and older, who are less likely to get vaccinated, and to children younger than that, who aren’t eligible yet for the COVID-19 vaccines. Experts like former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb are now warning that “we’re going to see that children and schools do become more of a focal point of spread” as schools reopen later this summer.
On Friday, President Biden warned that the Delta variant is "particularly dangerous for young people," who are more socially active and less likely to be vaccinated than older adults.
Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and a public health professor at George Washington University, told Yahoo News, “We should be concerned in general about all individuals who are not yet vaccinated and who do not have immunity to COVID-19.” She explained that a more contagious variant “means that the activities that we once thought were safe are now riskier.”
More data is needed, but scientists believe that the Delta strain is likely to be more contagious in all age groups than previous strains, but that it is not necessarily more transmissible in kids.
Wen said that studies so far show Delta is “more likely to result in hospitalization, not necessarily among children, but that it is more severe, in general.” As a mother of two young children, she said this concerns her, because although children are less likely to contract severe cases of the illness, some have developed serious complications after becoming infected.
“I’m worried about my children and all of our children, essentially getting infected and potentially getting long-term effects," she said. “We now know with COVID-19 that it affects multiple organs, and it can cause long-lasting health effects, so I think it’s not a trivial disease for our children, either.”
In the United Kingdom, reports on the latest data suggest that the Delta variant is responsible for 99 percent of new cases. In a matter of two months, it has overtaken the Alpha variant, and a recent study suggests young people are helping drive the exponential growth of COVID-19 cases there.
In the U.S., it is too soon to tell what the impact of the Delta variant will be. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said Tuesday that the U.S. “has followed the U.K.” in the emergence of variants and that this strain presents a “great threat” to the U.S. effort to eliminate COVID-19.
There are ways, however, to protect children, now and in the future.
“The best thing that we can be doing to protect our children is to get vaccinated ourselves. We, as the adult population, should be all getting vaccinated, so that we can protect those among us who are not able to,” Wen said, referring to, among others, children and the immunocompromised.
“If we are living in a community where nearly all the adults are vaccinated, the infection rate is going to be much lower, and as a result our children will be less likely to become ill,” she said. “That’s the most important thing that we really can, and should be, doing.”
But how about in-person learning this fall? Wen said there are a number of ways we can try to protect children from COVID-19 while still helping to ensure they can return to school. One is for older students who are eligible for the vaccine to get their shots. Currently in the U.S., anyone 12 and older can get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
“If all the teachers and all the older students are vaccinated, you don’t need masks and distancing to be present anymore,” particularly in communities where the rate of transmission is low, Wen said.
However, she believes many communities are not going to risk it and “it probably is prudent for masks and, very importantly, for testing to be present too.”
Testing remains a “crucial preventive mitigation mechanism,” she said, and should be used as a surveillance measure to keep the virus out of schools and away from children.
Another thing Wen recommended is for parents to keep their children engaged in outdoor activities as much as possible this summer.
“Being outdoors substantially reduces the risk of transmission. Masks are not needed in these outdoor settings,” she said.
“On the other hand, if my children and other children are going to be indoors, I would highly encourage them to be wearing a mask. And for people around them to be wearing masks too, if they are unvaccinated — and that’s because the unvaccinated are still at high risk to one another.”
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