Delta COVID-19 variant is 'way more dangerous' than original strain, expert says

Amid an uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations nationwide, officials have pointed to the delta variant as a driving factor in new cases. One expert also noted anecdotal reports emerging that in hospitalized patients, the illness is progressing in a quicker manner than previous strains.

"It is becoming clear that this is a very dangerous, way more dangerous virus than the original one," Dr. Ricardo Franco, MD, an Infectious Disease Society of American (IDSA) member and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) said, in a briefing held Tuesday. 

Franco, who noted that about 97% of hospitalized patients at UAB are unvaccinated, said the delta variant pushes the threshold needed for herd immunity higher due to increased transmissibility.

He also noted that despite the virus acting more dangerously than previous strains, the majority of cases, hospitalizations and deaths involve unvaccinated people in areas of both high and low vaccination rates, meaning the vaccine is working. 

"Data shows that a vaccinated person is eight times less likely to get infected by delta compared to an unvaccinated person," he said. "[A vaccinated person] is 25 times less likely to be hospitalized, and if hospitalized, 25 times less likely to die from COVID-19." 

The higher the number of vaccinations, the more likely an unvaccinated person would benefit from herd immunity, he said.

Franco added that the average age of patients being treated at his hospital and elsewhere is younger than those observed in previous COVID-19 surges. Across the country, pediatric hospitals are reporting increasing trends among younger children who are not yet eligible for vaccination.

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of the health transformation institute added that the observed shift in age could be due to higher vaccination rates among older adults, particularly among those over 65.

"When you have large numbers of people infected, even if the rate of hospitalizations and deaths are low, that number will go up," he said, adding that he doesn’t think the U.S. has "a good handle yet on what case frequency is among young people."  

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