But with half of the population still unvaccinated, the virus is spreading, and with it, the threat of variants and breakthrough infections. The vaccines are proven to be effective against hospitalizations and death from COVID-19, but the Delta variant is more transmissible than previous variants. Though data is limited, recent studies suggest that vaccinated individuals can spread the virus to others. The CDC’s recommendations continue to evolve in tandem with their findings, which can make it difficult to assess what your risk level is as an individual.
The primary question is – do you need to worry?
Dr. Kevin Ban, Walgreens’ chief medical officer, answers the most pressing questions about the current state of COVID-19.
What is the Delta variant and how concerning is it?
Dr. Kevin Ban: When a virus spreads from person to person, its code changes, which is called a mutation. When the mutated virus then spreads from person to person, it’s considered a variant of the original virus. This is common – it’s why the flu vaccine is updated year to year. These variants can develop different features, and, in the case of Delta, become more transmissible.
The Delta variant is a very contagious virus. Rather quickly, it has become the predominant strain in the U.S. In fact, more than 80 percent of the samples we’re testing now are the Delta variant. Until recently, the Alpha variant was the predominant strain, and that was 50 percent more contagious than the original type. The Delta variant is 50 percent more contagious than Alpha, so it’s more easily spread from person to person than the strain we were dealing with for most of 2020.
What we’re not sure about yet is its severity. It would seem that Delta is at least equally severe to the Alpha type. We’ll have to wait and see, but what we can expect is that it’s going to spread very quickly, predominantly in people who are unvaccinated, and, as we are seeing, among children.
Do all vaccines protect against the emerging variants?
Ban: All three of the vaccines – Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – are extremely effective at protecting against severe disease and death due to COVID-19. I know news of breakthrough infections are at the top of people’s minds. While we study why these might be occurring in vaccinated individuals, the important thing to remember is that these breakthrough cases are rare and typically not severe. Since May, 99.2 percent of the people who have lost their lives to COVID-19 have been unvaccinated.
Why should I get vaccinated if I can still get COVID-19?
Ban: Great question. What I want to stress here is the unlikelihood that you will get COVID-19, or get severely sick from COVID-19, if you are vaccinated. Less than 1 percent of people who were vaccinated and contracted COVID-19 lost their lives. Less than 3 percent of vaccinated people have ended up in the hospital. We have a tendency sometimes to focus on that small percentage, instead of the 97 percent of people who could have been vaccinated and perhaps not gotten sick in the first place. To summarize, these are extremely effective vaccines, especially when you look at the prevention of severe disease. Getting vaccinated is your best shot at avoiding a tough bout with the virus that could land you in the hospital, and it will help slow the spread of these variants.
Will I have to get a third shot?
Ban: That’s the million-dollar question. Following FDA emergency use authorization and new guidance from the CDC on Aug. 13, Walgreens is now administering an additional dose of Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to moderately to severely immunocompromised individuals, including people undergoing cancer treatment, stem cell or organ transplant recipients, people living with HIV or those who are receiving immunosuppressive treatments. The FDA and CDC have been carefully reviewing the data and how the vaccines perform against new variants and made this decision to protect those who are more vulnerable to infection. I’m glad we’ll be able to provide that extra boost of safety for our patients with weakened immune systems. As soon as we know when more people might be eligible, we will communicate it.
When can children younger than 12 years old be vaccinated?
Ban: Believe me, the scientists and doctors I know behind the vaccines are working around the clock to clear the vaccine for people of all ages. The data could be collected, reviewed and approved in the next few months, but not by the time the school year begins. I know that this may be disappointing news to some of you, but I hope it brings you comfort that the FDA is prioritizing health and safety for children everywhere by ensuring every protocol is met before giving that emergency authorization. In the meantime, some schools are requiring masks to protect students when they return to school in the fall.
Should I wear a mask indoors … or outdoors?
Ban: To echo what I said before, if you are vaccinated, you significantly decrease your chances of getting severely ill from COVID-19. As of now, if you are vaccinated, it is not necessary to wear a mask outdoors, although, you should consider wearing a mask if the setting is crowded. Guidance on wearing masks indoors continues to evolve with the science, and some studies show that vaccinated individuals can carry or spread the Delta variant. The CDC recently shared recommendations to wear masks indoors again based on recent data from an area where community transmission was high. In addition to CDC guidance, I recommend following local masking guidelines whenever possible, especially in areas where COVID-19 rates are spiking, and to keep your neighbors in mind. To be as cautious as possible, Walgreens reviewed this data and made the decision to ask team members to wear masks again. At this time, we do not require individuals to be vaccinated to enter our stores.
Will we have to go back to lockdown measures?
Ban: Like most people, I was excited to see my family, go back to restaurants and resume a lot of normal life activities this summer. Being vaccinated gave me that comfort. I cannot predict what will happen with these variants, and what local and federal governments might decide if the situation worsens.
I am encouraged by the measures I’m seeing being taken to keep our communities safe. We’ve seen a more than 30 percent increase in demand for vaccines in key states, and testing has more than doubled. Over-the-counter COVID tests are one of the highest-selling products at Walgreens right now. I hope this means people who were once vaccine-hesitant have made the important decision to be immunized. While we continue to collect data to inform our decisions, keep washing your hands, wear a mask if it’s required and, of course, get vaccinated if you haven’t.