ATLANTA - As students across Georgia head back to school, microbiologist Dr. Amber Schmidtke, Ph.D., chair of the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Saint Mary, says the US is moving into the most challenging phase of the pandemic, with a variant different from anything we have seen.
"It's got some more tricks in its bag," Schmidtke says.
For one, Schmidtke says, the US is dealing with a version of the virus that is much better at spreading.
A confidential CDC report found the delta variant spreads as easily as chickenpox, and is more contagious than viruses that cause the common cold.
Schmidtke says earlier versions of the virus had a lower infectivity rate, known as an R0 value.
"That's the average number of people a sick person will go on to infect," she says. "Previously, it was two people. So, a sick person would infect two, and they would each infect two more people."
But, with the delta variant, instead of one person infecting two people, Schmidtke says, they may infect up to seven.
"One person transmits to seven, and those seven can go on to transmit to seven additional people," she says. "So, things escalate very, very quickly."
And, Schmidtke says, research shows people infected with the delta variant carry a much higher level of virus in their bodies than those infected with earlier versions of COVID-19.
"It appears that someone infected with delta has a viral load that is 1,000 times higher than previous variants," she says. "So, that means they're breathing out far more viral particles than previously. Because of that, your body is sort of bombarded with a lot of viral particles in the air. And, when that happens, your risk of infection goes up."
Schmidtke says getting vaccinated will lower your risk of being hospitalized or dying if you do contract the delta variant.
She cautions breakthrough infections, while uncommon, are possible, and research shows those who are infected after being vaccinated can pass the virus on to others.
So, for now, Schmidtke recommends taking extra precautions.
"It's important for us to not just get vaccinated at this time, but while case rates are as high as they are, to also add things like wearing masks, social distancing and some of those other things that have worked in the past to bring transmission levels down," she says.
Schmidtke says masking up indoors in public settings is especially important if you live with children too young to be vaccinated or someone who is immunocompromised.
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