By Leo Yang
Provincetown, a quiet beach town with roughly 3,000 residents located at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, welcomed thousands of tourists during the July 4 holidays. Provincetown is nearing normalcy as nearly every resident over the age of 12 is vaccinated, the highest vaccination rate in the country. With the highly contagious Delta variant, however, the highway to reopening might have to take a U-turn.
In early May, the CDC dropped nationwide masks and social-distancing requirements for those who are fully vaccinated. Two months later, on July 27, the agency updated its mask mandate, suggesting even fully vaccinated people to wear face masks indoors in areas of “substantial or high transmission." This sharp transition comes after a series of Delta infections in the Provincetown area during holiday gatherings. Among these 900-or-so cases, three-fourths of them occurred in fully-vaccinated persons, known as breakthrough cases.
These new findings introduce a refreshed and ever more endangering image of the Delta variant, which is driving up COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations worldwide: in India, where Delta was first detected, a catastrophic second wave of infections has claimed over 400 thousand lives and completely overwhelmed hospitals and ICUs. In the UK, the Delta variant has brought twice the amount of deaths and twelve times new cases compared to previous strains; finally, the United States saw a surge of cases and hospitalizations that tally back to February levels, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates.
Delta is also more contagious than any COVID-19 variants before. In the same update, the CDC claimed that the variant is 50% more contagious than the Alpha variant, first detected in Britain in December 2020, and it is “as contagious as chickenpox and may cause more severe disease than previous strains of the virus.” In a recent outbreak in the Chinese province of Jiangsu, local authorities redefine “close contacts” as anyone who has been in the same space, unit, or building with the infected patient for the past four days.
Even in Israel where over 70% of its population is fully vaccinated, over twice the number of cases occurred since Delta entered the country, many of them are breakthrough cases. “Previously we thought that fully vaccinated individuals are protected, but we now see that vaccine effectiveness is roughly 40 percent,” says Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, Israel's director of public health services. Especially for the elders who received their vaccines as early as January, the infection rate is “double of those who are fully vaccinated by March,” according to Alroy-Preis.
However, that doesn’t invalidate the effectiveness of vaccines. Statistics from Israel show that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine provided to most of its population is still “93% effective in preventing severe disease and hospitalizations.” Similarly, in the Provincetown outbreak, no death has been reported, and very few are hospitalized. On the other hand, in states like Arkansas, Louisiana, and other areas with low vaccination rates, hospitalizations and deaths are souring. There are also unprecedentedly more cases among children under 12 who are yet eligible to receive a vaccine.
In the short term, Delta will still spread around the world more quickly and dangerously than ever before. Vaccines are still effective, despite evidence suggesting that their immunity may be waning with time. Booster shots are likely to be necessary especially for those at higher risks, and it is possible that they need to be taken every year like the flu shots. There are still some rooms for positivity: both Israel and Britain have seen a decline in Delta infections as more and more people are getting vaccinated throughout the first half of the year, and the same trajectory may imply similar results in the United States, China, and other areas where Delta is currently causing another outbreak. The battle with COVID-19 is essentially the race between increasingly contagious variants and a more densely vaccine-protected population. While it will still be a while before we completely enter “normalcy”, we can remain hopeful, but cautiously.