Contagious Delta variant of COVID raises concerns; health officials worry about low vaccination rate

Updated: Jun. 16, 2021 at 7:55 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The CDC announced the Delta variant of coronavirus, first found in India, is of concern in the United States. The agency cites Delta’s increased transmission, is 40% to 60% higher than other strains, along with its potential for severe disease.

DHEC reports that less than 40% of South Carolinians have completed their vaccinations, which health experts say is not high enough to provide herd immunity.

Dr. Jane Kelly, the Assistant State Epidemiologist at DHEC, says that DHEC is concerned that the amount of unvaccinated people in the state will aid the variant in spreading more quickly, therefore increasing COVID cases in the state.

“We have been coming down, our trends have been going down for so long, this could turn it around,” said Kelly. “That’s why it’s so important that we get those other individuals vaccinated because of these variants, but especially because of the Delta variant.”

Kelly says that even if someone had COVID and believes he or she may have antibodies, those antibodies will not protect as well against the Delta variant.

Specific groups that have been showing lower vaccination rate, DHEC data shows, are men, younger people, and minorities. There are different causes for each group’s hesitancy, says Kelly.

South Carolinians vaccinated by age group
South Carolinians vaccinated by age group(WIS)

Men account for less than 50% of vaccinated South Carolinians within each age group, DHEC data shows. In general, men account for approximately 38% of individuals who have received at least one vaccine in the state.

A possible reason that men are lacking in vaccinations, says Kelly, could be that men typically do not go to the doctor as much as women, convenience is a major concern for many men, and the initial vaccine push was aimed at healthcare workers which is mostly women.

Percentage of males vaccinated by age group in SC
Percentage of males vaccinated by age group in SC(WIS)

Kelly says that continuing walk-in vaccination sites at convenient locations should help increase vaccination rates among men. She says that DHEC’s preliminary reports from initiatives like “Shot with a Chaser” or farmer’s market clinics have shown to be successful so far.

Younger people, Kelly says, may think they don’t need the vaccine because they perceive themselves as having less risk of contracting severe infection. Because of the perceived lower risk, some younger people may not prioritize getting their shot, Kelly says.

“That’s not zero risk. We have still had, unfortunately, some young adults some teens in this state die from COVID-19. A far larger number who recovered, but they were hospitalized, and they now have long-lasting COVID symptoms,” says Kelly.

Kelly says that minorities may be hesitant to get vaccinated because of mistrust of the government or vaccines due to historical events regarding medical experimentation.

“I can understand, you know, there have been egregious and shameful events in the past, especially with medical experimentation with African Americans,” she said. “But, you know, on equal treatment of all people of color, and we need to address that.”

Kelly says that partnerships between healthcare providers and community groups such as churches will hopefully address that issue and that teaming with trusted individuals, such as pastors, in the community may provide a sense of comfort.

Infectious disease expert, Dr. Helmut Albrecht of Prisma Health, says that the Delta variant may soon become the predominant strain of COVID. The CDC reports that Delta cases currently make up nearly 10% of COVID cases.

“The 10% here seems fairly low, but over the last couple of weeks that’s doubled every two weeks, which essentially means at 10% in six weeks, this will also be the major variant that we’ll be dealing with here,” said Albrecht.

To combat the Delta variant, Albrecht says vaccines and supplementary health practices like hand washing, social distancing, and mask wearing in appropriate settings will help slow the spread of the strain, therefore not allowing it to mutate at high rates.

“Last year, July and August, it was not good in the Southeast, certainly with this large pool of unvaccinated patients here, and now a new variant is rolling in,” said Albrecht. “That is a recipe for problems, and I expect we will kind of see some problems unless we get the vaccination more broadly out there.”

In June of last year, Newberry, Orangeburg, and Columbia ranked 11th on the John’s Hopkins list of COVID hot spots. Both DHEC and Dr. Albrecht worry that if vaccination rates and safety practices do not increase in the coming weeks, another surge could occur.

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