In the past couple of weeks, the Delta coronavirus variant has dashed the hopes of many Americans looking forward to celebrating a “hot vax summer” and the end of the pandemic.
As health experts warned in June, the highly contagious Delta variant has hit especially hard in states with low rates of vaccination, filling hospitals and morgues yet again in a return to some of the pandemic’s darkest days. And unlike with previous variants, new data suggests that some vaccinated people who get infected with Delta — while overwhelmingly protected against severe disease — can still spread the virus to others. This has led the CDC to advise that vaccinated people in areas with higher viral transmission should resume wearing masks in indoor public spaces.
Big questions still remain about the extent to which “breakthrough” cases are spreading Delta. But there is now a growing sense of dread that Delta will be an unstoppable force.
Yet the message from experts who are watching Delta waves in Europe is more encouraging, suggesting that the usual rulebook still applies: Vaccination and strategies like masking indoors in public and avoiding crowds can keep case numbers down.
Meanwhile, some observers have looked at what happened with Delta in the UK and India, where the variant was first discovered, and speculated that the US’s Delta misery may at least be short-lived, whatever we do to limit its spread. In both countries, a steep rise in cases was followed by a similarly rapid decline, suggesting that the fast-spreading Delta variant typically burns itself out fairly quickly.
There are two big problems with this view. First, if we simply let Delta take its course, the cost in lives and overburdened hospitals will be high.
“On the way to that point, there would be a catastrophic number of hospitalizations,” Lauren Ancel Meyers, a computational epidemiologist at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, told BuzzFeed News. “You would overwhelm your healthcare system.”
Second, if you look at the diversity of the Delta curves seen across Europe, it is far from clear that there is a typical fast-burning Delta wave. And in those countries that have seen a rapid rise and fall, changes in people’s behavior — rather than the inherent characteristics of the Delta variant — seem to be a big part of what has turned things around.
Dig deeper into the reasons behind the different Delta waves seen across Europe, and a more hopeful message emerges: Scary as it is, the Delta variant seems to be controllable. Vaccination is our best weapon, but the modest social distancing measures that have worked against other, less transmissible forms of the coronavirus can still help in a big way.