As more people are leaving their masks at home and are beginning to attend gatherings again, some may wonder if the pandemic will simply become a distant memory.
Because of increasing vaccination rates, Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease specialist at North Shore University Hospital, said it is unlikely that the days of high rates of hospitalizations and deaths will return.
“I think we are in good shape in our area, though there has been a slight drift upward in cases over the last couple of weeks,” Hirschwerk said. “I think that’s attributed to the fact that we’re dealing with a very contagious variant, the Delta variant, which is significantly more contagious than the original strains of COVID that were circulating.”
As of July 21, Northwell Health reported 87 patients hospitalized throughout its network for COVID-19, with 12 of those patients hospitalized at North Shore University Hospital.
And spikes in infection can also be caused by the fact that COVID-19 related policies, such as masks and social distancing mandates, have been lifted, Hirschwerk said.
“I think that it’s possible that we will continue to have a gradual rise in cases, but I don’t anticipate that we will ever get to the point, close to where we were last winter or in the spring of 2020,” Hirschwerk said.
The Delta variant was first identified last December in India. The variant caused an outbreak in the country, spreading to Great Britain. The first case of Delta in the United States was diagnosed in March and it is now the most dominant strain in this country, accounting for about 83 percent of COVID-19 cases as of July 21, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
People who have not been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are at most risk, as it appears that fully vaccinated people have the most protection against the variant. In the United States, according to Yale Medicine, there is a disproportionate number of unvaccinated people in the Southern states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri and West Virginia.
“We still have vulnerable people,” Hirschwerk said. “While we do have overall good numbers of people that have been vaccinated compared to other areas of the country, there still are many vulnerable people who have not yet been vaccinated and when we combine that all together, it’s leading to a slight uptick.”
Children and young people are also at a higher risk to contract the Delta variant, as a recent study from the United Kingdom revealed that children and adults under 50 were 2.5 times more likely to become infected with Delta. As of right now, no vaccines have been approved for children under the age of 12.
Only one study from Scotland showed that the Delta variant was twice as likely as the Alpha variant to result in hospitalization among unvaccinated individuals. The information could change as experts learn more, according to an article from Yale Medicine. People who are being hospitalized at North Shore University Hospital, however, are not generally as sick as they were in the spring of 2020 or last winter, Hirschwerk said.
There have been reports that Delta can affect the body differently compared to other variants; as recent surveys in the United Kingdom reveal that people are experiencing headaches, sore throat, runny nose and fever instead of the traditional cough and loss of smell. However, Hirschwerk said that he has not noticed any significant differences in symptoms between Delta and other variants.
“The vast majority of vulnerable people, like the elderly, are vaccinated,” Hirschwerk said. “The good news with the vaccine is that if you have been vaccinated, then the likelihood of getting COVID is reduced. But even if you get COVID, the likelihood of getting sick enough that you require hospitalization is extremely low.”
And having prior infection, Hirschwerk said, is not protective against the Delta variant.
As the vice president of community relations at Northwell Health, Edward Fraser knows all too well the amount of misinformation circulating about the COVID-19 vaccines. For the past 15 months, Fraser has been out in the communities helping with the testing and vaccination effort.
Misinformation about the vaccine’s safety and necessity may have caused a stagnation of vaccine rates after those who wanted the vaccine got it in the spring.
“I have to say, though, in recent weeks there has been an uptick [in vaccination rates], which I’m so happy to see,” Fraser said. “More information is out there. People are getting a little bit more educated. We’re really out there talking it up and really making them understand how this vaccine will protect you…I think people were also waiting to see what would happen first.”
To schedule a vaccine appointment, visit covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov.