A COVID-19 testing center in D.C. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The mass rollout of vaccines this spring brought hope. A hope for a summer (mostly) free of worrying about COVID-19. But now, the alpha variant and highly contagious delta variant are dampening the party as COVID-19 cases climb locally and across the country. The rising number of cases and changes to health and safety guidelines in places like Los Angeles County have people wondering if they should be making any changes to their lifestyles. 

In today’s newsletter, we look at recently released data from DC Health and what local authorities and national experts have to say.

Last week, DC Health released data, including new information about local “breakthrough cases,” or fully vaccinated individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19.

  • The delta variant accounts for 45 percent of new cases in HHS Region 3—which includes D.C.
  • DC Health reports a seven-day average of 6.5 cases per 100,000 people, which would be at Phase 2 levels, denoting “moderate community spread.”
  • Out of more than 375,000 fully vaccinated individuals, D.C. has recorded 200 breakthrough cases. Less than 1 percent of fully vaccinated people have tested positive for COVID-19. Of those 200, 13 were hospitalized with COVID-19.

DC Health tells City Paper the alpha and delta variants have both appeared in D.C.

“The alpha variant is dominant in our region … and there are minimal reports of delta variants at this time,” DC Health says. “D.C. data is currently not reported [on the CDC’s variant tracker] as we have fewer than 300 cases sequenced in a week.”

As the Post reports, only 1 percent of COVID lab samples in D.C. show the presence of delta, whereas 83 percent of all samples nationwide show the variant. The discrepancy has led DC Health to introduce a new rule that requires labs to sequence more samples or submit more samples for sequencing to better discern which variants are in D.C.

What Makes Delta so Dangerous?

The delta variant that was first detected in India can be up to 100 percent more transmissible than the COVID-19 we had last year, according to a recent study from Eurosurveillance. By comparison, the alpha variant is only up to 34 percent more transmissible. 

Delta has certain mutations in its spike protein that differ from those of other variants, including mutations that mean the delta variant:

  • has a higher virus load (there’s more of the virus in the infected person’s blood), which some epidemiologists hypothesize might make it more likely for folks to transmit the virus even by talking to each other outdoors while unmasked
  • is less responsive to COVID-19 antibodies’ ability to neutralize the virus
  • supports cell-to-cell fusion and tissue tropism (the cells and tissues that allow viruses to grow in our bodies), which may be partly what makes delta more transmissible

What we (and the medical community) don’t know yet is how transmissible COVID-19 variants are among vaccinated folks. There hasn’t been any evidence that delta is more transmissible between vaccinated people, partly because there’s such little data on the topic, according to Dr. Vaughn Cooper, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Pittsburgh. 

Some epidemiologists believe that we’re on a parallel path to the U.K., which has been ravaged by a delta-driven spike in new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. If so, the delta-related rise could peak in a few weeks, as it did in England, former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC reporters this morning.  

Good news: We’re unlikely to see future strains that override our immunity, according to research conducted in separate studies by Cooper and Dr. Eric Topol, founder of Scripps Research Institute. “If we can just get through delta, we should be in good shape,” said Topol in an Association of Healthcare Journalists conference last week. “That’s the hope.”

What Does This Mean for D.C.?

DC Health tells City Paper in bold type that “the best protection against COVID-19 variants continues to be vaccination.”

“As we get more data about fully vaccinated people, the message couldn’t be clearer: don’t wait, vaccinate,” says Mayor Bowser in a statement. “We know, and the data continues to show us, that the COVID-19 vaccines are incredibly effective, they are safe, they are keeping people out of the hospital, and they are saving lives.”

Currently, DC Health reports that 72.6% of District residents 12 years of age or older are fully vaccinated. 

DC Health adds no vaccine is completely effective against a virus and it remains a “critical tool” for stopping the spread and reducing the severity of the illness. It recommends unvaccinated residents wear a mask and social distance and everyone should remain home when they’re sick.

Cooper and Topol recommend folks be strategic about their travel—even on local transportation like buses or in car rides with the windows closed, as being in indoor cramped spaces for a long time has been shown to be a vehicle for transmission. If virtual meetings are available, they’re a smarter choice than indoor ones. Don’t put vaccines through an acid test, says Topol.

Right now, D.C. officials aren’t recommending major changes, but public health experts call for caution with this delta-related spike in COVID cases. That being said, get vaccinated. DC Health has a list of locations where you can get your shot.

Bailey Vogt (tips? bvogt@washingtoncitypaper.com)

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

  • To see today’s coronavirus cases and more information, visit our coronavirus dashboard
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