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Q&A: What The Highly Contagious Delta Variant Means For Austinites

People wear face masks at the Austin airport, where it's federally mandated to do so, in July.
Gabriel C. Pérez
People wear face masks at the Austin airport, where it's federally mandated to do so, in July.

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A lot has changed in a short amount of time because of the highly contagious delta COVID-19 variant. It's driving up case numbers and hospitalizations in Central Texas, around the state and nationwide in places with low vaccination rates.

Ashley Lopez, who covers health and health care for KUT, answered questions about the variant and what it means for Austinites. Listen to the Q&A above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

What has happened in just the past few weeks?

Well, unfortunately, what everyone had feared is what happened: Delta has taken over. It is quickly spreading across Texas and other parts of the country. Hospitals are filling up with very sick people, and people are dying. There are a lot of reasons for this.

One is this variant of SARS-CoV-2 is very, very contagious. Some news outlets recently got ahold of slide presentations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about this, and they have data that suggests this virus is more contagious than chickenpox, which is one of the most contagious viruses we know about. And it's definitely more contagious than the common cold, the 1918 flu and smallpox.

I recently talked about this with Dr. Parker Hudson, an assistant professor of internal medicine and an infectious disease expert at the Dell Medical School at UT Austin.

Hudson said: “One of the reasons why it's so contagious is that people have about a thousand times more virus with the delta variant, which means they're putting more virus into the air and the environment around them.”

In addition to being more contagious, CDC internal data also shows that the delta variant likely increases the risk of severe disease and hospitalization compared with the original strain.

When it comes to delta, the good news is that the best response is still the vaccines we have. The vaccines, particularly the two-dose MRNA vaccines — Pfizer and Moderna — because those are the ones we have more data on, are doing a great job of protecting people from severe illness, which means people who are vaccinated are much more likely not to get hospitalized or die.

Dr. Hudson, who is treating COVID patients, says if you haven't gotten vaccinated yet, this is a good time to consider it.

“Every person I care for now in the hospital who has COVID, it's just devastating because it's preventable,” Hudson said. “It's entirely preventable — severe disease and death. So please, please reconsider a vaccination if you haven't.”

The CDC is asking all people, including people who are vaccinated, to mask up while in public indoor spaces and in situations like large crowds. Why is this important? So many of us had kind of assumed that once we got vaccinated, masks wouldn't be necessary anymore.

I understand the frustration among vaccinated people when it comes to this. But there are actually two big reasons why you should be wearing masks in situations like this — even if you are vaccinated. One, it makes it less likely that you will transmit the virus to someone who is unvaccinated. Studies are showing that when you come into contact with the delta variant, you just have more virus in your system even if your vaccinated.

When we're talking about unvaccinated people, it's not just adults who have decided not to get vaccinated. We're talking about children under 12, who cannot get vaccinated in the U.S. And there's a growing number of kids getting sick in states that have had the variant for a long time. There are also people who have compromised immune systems who either can't get the vaccine or got the vaccine and the vaccines are just less effective in their system.

“The second benefit of masking for vaccinated people is really to control the inoculum of the delta virus that you're breathing in yourself,” Dr. Hudson said. So a mask reduces how much virus you put into the environment, but also how much virus you breathe in.

What do we know about what the delta variant means for people who are not vaccinated?

I'm going to say something that every public health official is saying right now and everyone should be screaming from the rooftops: If you are unvaccinated and you're not staying home and wearing a mask when in public, experts say it is almost inevitable that COVID-19 will find you, and chances are you will get sick and sometimes very sick.

Dr. Hudson told me he thinks within the next month or two, the delta variant will become nearly impossible to avoid if you are unvaccinated.

After getting vaccinated, people have started reincorporating things into their lives, like indoor dining, traveling and even just going over to somebody else's house. How should people think about these behaviors now that the delta variant is spreading and spreading so quickly?

So this is a not-fun part of all this. I will say it's up to everyone to assess their own level of risk; these are personal choices. But I'm just going to tell you what experts have told me. First, indoor dining and bars are very risky right now and are going to continue to get riskier as the delta variant spreads, especially in Texas. If you can, opt for outdoor seating when you go out to eat, and when you go out to someone's house, being outside is the better option.

Dr. Hudson told me that in general, it's a good idea to think about the quality of air where you are, including if you plan to travel.

“If you're in a carpool,” Hudson said, “if you're in a taxi, if you're in a bus, if you're on a Lyft or an Uber, obviously wearing a mask because you're in a closed space with somebody else, but also cracking the window, even if you're feeling fine or hopefully your driver is asymptomatic. Increasing the fresh air in that environment is important.”

He said you should also start investing in some better masks if you can, especially when you're traveling on a plane — something like a KN95, for example. These are going to be better protection with this variant because this variant just is so much more contagious.

And of course, continue to get tested for COVID when you come into contact with someone who you know has tested positive. If you feel sick, stay home. That is very important. And if you test positive and feel fine, still isolate yourself until you are no longer contagious.

Children under 12 cannot get vaccinated yet. We're coming close to the start of school. What should parents be thinking about as the delta variant continues to spread throughout the area?

Obviously, masks are going to be very, very important for this population. That's especially true if they are going to school, if they're going to be going to classes in person again. Outdoor activities are going to be your safest option, if you want your kids to socialize and get exercise and go out and do stuff. Choose the outdoor activities over indoor ones.

Dr. Hudson says this is actually the scariest part for him, too — just all this uncertainty for children, especially if they're returning to in-person classes. He said he has small children and he has decided to talk to them about the importance of keeping a mask on in school.

They understand the reasons why and how we're doing it to take care of our friends and other people, because we are considerate and we care and are respectful to the people around us,” he said. “We check in about their symptoms each day. I keep the Abbott BinaxNOW test at home to be able to test them if they do have any symptoms.”

He says these conversations and priorities obviously will look different for every family, but it's definitely going to be important to be vigilant around unvaccinated children because there's still a lot we don't know.

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