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Kansas doctors, public health officials concerned about ‘Delta Variant’ spread

Updated: Jun. 15, 2021 at 5:35 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - The Center for Disease Control announced Tuesday that the variant of COVID-19 known as “Delta” is now a “variant of concern.” It’s a designation given to the strains of the virus that may be more dangerous.

The Delta Variant was first identified in India. According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, it is becoming more visible in Kansas, now the second most common variant in the state.

“It causes symptoms to come on sooner and more severe symptoms than what we’ve been used to so far. It also seems to have an increased risk for hospitalization, in other words, illness severe enough to go to the hospital. As far as mortality or death, we don’t know if that’s increased yet or not,” said Keck Hartman, M.D., an infectious disease specialist.

While COVID-19 vaccines continue to be effective, they create an immune response against variants to a slightly lower degree studies are finding.

“So far, evidence supports that the vaccines are effective against the variants.” Sedgwick County Health Department Epidemiology Program Manager Kaylee Hervey said, “They may be a little bit less effective than what they are against the original strain, but they are still very effective. Recent studies against the Delta one, which is the one in the news, show that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are about 88 percent effective against that variant. Whereas with the original strain, it was 95 percent.”

Dr. Hartman said, “If you’re getting the vaccine and it requires two shots, the first shot is less effective against preventing infection than against the other varients. But the two-shot, if you complete the two-shots series, you’re highly protected.”

For doctors and public health officials, the concern is for those who are unvaccinated facing an increased risk.

“Unless people want to continue to practice self-isolation and stay homes and wear masks when they’re out in public, then our only line of defense and our best line of defense this is vaccinations,” said Dr. Hartman.

It’s natural for viruses to mutate. There are two worlds when it comes to virus variants: those that don’t turn out to be much of anything and those that raise alarms. With COVID-19 Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Keck Hartman said that requires a close watch.

“Potential for them to be worse than what we’ve seen so far,” Dr. Hartman said. “Studies have been showing increased transmissibility, contagiousness up to 60 percent.”

It’s taking about two weeks for the number of Delta variant cases to double.

For months, Kansas has been tracking the spread of variants. While Alpha, which started in the U.K., remains the most common, in the past month, the Delta variant has gone from less than one percent of tests sequenced to nearly 30 percent, as of last week.

“We’ve seen that the Delta variant has become the predominate strain in England already in just the last little over a month. It was not prevalent at all in this country a month ago, but now it’s becoming one of the more significant strains that we’re seeing,” Dr. Hartman said. “They’re estimating a doubling time of two weeks.”

Sedgwick County Health Department Epidemiology Program Manager Kaylee Hervey said of positive COVID-19 tests they’ve had sequenced in the state, as of Tuesday, fewer than 640 were variant strains. Most were Alpha with 400 cases. The Gamma, or what was know as the Brazil variant, has also been seen in Sedgwick County. Delta made up 37 of those cases, about six percent overall, But that total is climbing for the variant. On June 1, there were eight Delta variant cases.

“That’s why we do this monitoring is to figure out what those variants are and also if they are more severe, try to prevent the spread before it happens,” Hervey said.

Hervey said the county has so far sent about 1,000 positive COVID-19 test samples to the KDHE for genomic sequencing, where they test to see if variants are present.

If a variant is found, the health department reaches out to the patient again to help provide them with more information.

“The variants do show that we’re still in the pandemic.” Hervey said, “We’re are still seeing the variants. We are still seeing cases in general as well. But, when you look at countries like India or the UK or some of the other countries that have kind of seen a surge in cases and some of them like India to a very high degree, those are usually related to these variants.”

Dr. Hartman is also monitoring a handful of COVID-19 cases in Hutchinson, where fully vaccinated elderly long-term care residents were hospitalized.

“We don’t know what strains are causing these infections yet, but these particular patients have had serious enough infection to be hospitalized.” Dr. Hartman said, “There’s a lot of things that we don’t know. They may not have responded very well to the vaccine in the first place. We do know the vaccines available right now are very effective against holding off this Delta strain.”

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