With a recent uptick in positive tests and COVID-19 case numbers, health officials in North Carolina say that the more contagious delta variant, first detected in India, is spreading rapidly throughout the state.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” said Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease expert at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “The fire is that delta is spreading among the unvaccinated.”
Both the average number of new cases and the percentage of positive tests are starting to increase slightly, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
The seven-day rolling average of new daily cases increased by 12% from the last week in June to the first week in July.
Hospitalizations have increased by 8% over the last week.
In the past week of available data, an average of 3.3% of tests returned positive per day, up from 2.4% the week before.
COVID-19 metrics had been decreasing rapidly for several months as vaccines have become widely available, but vaccination rates have stagnated.
Among those 18 or older in North Carolina, 56% have received at least one dose of the vaccine. That rate hovered around 55% throughout June.
DHHS reported in a press release Thursday that more than 99% of new cases since May are among people who have not been vaccinated.
“We’re definitely concerned that we’re starting to see increases,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Zack Moore. “We believe that it is related to the emergence of the delta variant here in North Carolina.”
In the week prior to June 19, the latest available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 30% of new cases were estimated to be due to the delta variant in North Carolina.
A month earlier, that rate was just 0.7%.
Wohl said that the current rate is most likely even higher.
“The numbers have gone up just incredibly quickly just in the last few days,” Wohl said, based on current sequencing of the virus at UNC. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re much higher.”
The way the virus is selectively sequenced in the lab results in the weeks-long delay in reporting, Moore said. The state is working to expedite that process, though the current reporting doesn’t change North Carolina’s immediate pandemic response.
“We’re starting to collaborate with different academic centers and commercial laboratories to get a higher number of viruses sequenced and get a faster turnaround,” Moore said. “It is important information for us to have, so that we can make sure we’re aware of what’s circulating.”
Nationwide, the delta variant currently accounts for over 50% of new cases.
In other countries, including Israel and the United Kingdom, the delta variant accounts for up to 90% of new cases. Moore said North Carolina and the rest of the United States could be there soon.
“By the end of July, [the delta variant] will be far and away the most common variant that we have in North Carolina,” Moore said.
In an emailed statement from Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, spokesperson Ford Porter said Cooper continues to urge vaccination as the delta variant spreads.
“The information we have now is that vaccines are safe and very effective against this and other COVID-19 variants. Most all of the people getting sick and dying now are unvaccinated,” Porter wrote.
Cooper doesn’t plan to reinstate COVID-19 restrictions though.
“The governor does not plan to impose additional measures, but he agrees with health official recommendations that unvaccinated people should wear masks until they get their vaccines,” Porter wrote.
On Friday the CDC issued new guidance for schools, saying fully vaccinated teachers and students do not need to wear masks, The News & Observer reported. In North Carolina, an executive order from Cooper still requires masks to be worn by everyone in public schools.
‘I would wear a mask. It just makes good sense.’
Earlier this week, The Times of Israel reported that the country had discovered a 30% decrease in effectiveness against symptomatic COVID-19 from the Pfizer vaccine since May, when the delta variant wasn’t as prevalent.
But the vaccine still strongly protects against severe symptoms, hospitalizations and death. Wohl said that the medical community is waiting for more data from Israel, but he suspects that nearly all hospitalizations and deaths there recently are among those unvaccinated.
“Just because you’re fully vaccinated doesn’t mean you’re wearing a bulletproof vest against the virus,” Wohl said.
He said risks of mild symptomatic illness have been present since clinical vaccine trials.
Given that the delta variant may cause more mild symptomatic illness in the vaccinated, Wohl said he still wears a mask in certain contexts to protect others who may not be vaccinated.
“Whether the CDC says it or not, if you’re indoors, and you’re in a public place with a bunch of people who could be unvaccinated, I would wear a mask. It just makes good sense,” Wohl said. “It’s like wearing a seatbelt in your car or sunblock out in the sun.”
In a more controlled environment, where everyone is known to be vaccinated, Wohl said masks aren’t necessary.
“We have friends over who are fully vaccinated, and we have dinner with them. Now, it’s not 50 people. But just a few people, that’s not a problem. I’m not worried about that,” Wohl said. “They can be less stringent with masking and distancing for sure, absolutely. That’s the benefit of getting vaccinated.”
‘There’s no smoking gun’
Nationwide, two-thirds of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the CDC.
Wohl said in the UK, where the adult first-dose vaccination rate is over 86%, the delta variant is still causing a surge in hospitalizations and deaths, almost entirely among those unvaccinated.
“Just because they had such a small, but significant proportion of people who are vulnerable to delta, they’re suffering surges. Imagine that happening here,” Wohl said. “There’s no reason it shouldn’t. The only difference between the US and the UK is they have a lot of delta. We don’t yet, but we will.”
He said now is the time to get vaccinated to prevent becoming a victim of the more contagious and possibly more deadly delta variant.
“Hundreds of millions of people have been vaccinated — there’s no smoking gun,” Wohl said. “If you get six or seven or 15 cases of something bad, it makes international news even though hundreds of millions of people have been vaccinated. It’s safe. This is your time. This is the moment. There’s no reason to wait any longer.”