On Sunday I was sitting on a plane listening to a person a row behind me cough, and for the first time in a while I felt nervous. I’ve been fully vaccinated since February—I was part of the Pfizer vaccine trial—and two weeks after my second shot I felt near invincible. And why shouldn’t I? The Pfizer vaccine had a 94 percent efficacy rate in preventing infection. But that was before the mutations came.
The good news: It seems that the very powerful MRNA vaccines still work on the Covid Delta variant. A UK study from this spring found that, the MRNA vaccines are “88% effective against symptomatic disease and 96% effective against hospitalization.” Again, it’s early days with the Delta variant, which now makes up 83 percent of the United states cases. But according to CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, it looks like this Delta outbreak will be, “an outbreak of the unvaccinated.”
For places with low vaccination rates, the Covid Delta variant will likely mean a return to packed emergency rooms and a shortage of ICU beds. Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital told me, “Delta is accelerating wherever vaccination rates are low, especially in the South from Missouri and Arkansas and Louisiana and east all the way to Northern Florida.” Anyone who is unvaccinated and lives in that area is at risk, he stressed to me. More people will die this fall, but their deaths will have been almost completely preventable with a simple safe MRNA vaccine.
But as a seriously neurotic individual, I had spent the last year in my apartment washing groceries and leaving deliveries for 24 hours before touching them, I was still worried. I wrote to CNN medical analyst and professor at George Washington University doctor Jonathan Reiner for more confirmation. Was I really safe? He told me, “Fully vaccinated people are extremely well protected against serious illness and hospitalization, and almost completely protected against death. We’ll continue to see breakthrough infections, both symptomatic and asymptomatic, but very few vaccinated people will get sick enough to require hospitalization, and almost none will die. We’re so fortunate to have these vaccines. It’s infuriating that we can’t get 30 percent of adults to take it.”
This made me feel better. But then my husband called me on the phone from San Francisco. He told me that three fully vaccinated friends of his got the virus from an unvaccinated person who was showing symptoms. They’re all fine, but experienced flu-like symptoms. I understand this is to be expected, but it doesn’t make it less scary. We’ve spent an entire year watching people die of Covid; it’s a huge mental jump to adjust to the idea that vaccinated people can get Covid and be basically okay.
Doctor Eric Topal explained what is likely to come here in the United States: “I'm quite concerned we'll see a major surge in cases, like in the UK, since we are even less vaccine protected and running right in parallel with them. That means a lot more long Covid, too. And even with major blunting of the number of hospitalizations and deaths, there will be a substantial number of hospitalizations and deaths. We'll get through it, but it's undoubtedly going to hurt. Stay confident, but vigilant if you're fully vaccinated.” Ultimately, all these doctors told me the same thing, this Delta variant is likely pretty harmless if you’re fully vaccinated with the MRNA vaccines and if you’re not immunocompromised. Israel is already giving a third Covid vaccine shot to the immunocompromised and the elderly.
These doctors made me feel less nervous. After a year plus of pandemic, I’m still pretty worried, though. So despite the fact that my family is fully vaccinated, I’m going to be careful. Despite the assurances from these doctors that I would probably be fine, I would still like to avoid getting the Delta variant, so I will continue to indoor mask in places with a lot of people or in places with low vaccine rates. As Dr. Jonathan Reiner told me, “It depends on where you live and what your home situation is like. If you live in a place with a lot of unvaccinated people (think Missouri, Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi, etc.), you might consider wearing a mask in public because there will be a lot of infected people and this variant causes high viral loads. If you have kids at home who can’t get vaccinated because they’re too young, I would also mask up in public. This weekend I said on the air that I think we should reinstate universal masking. Not so much to protect the vaccinated but to protect the unvaccinated.”
We’ve come so far in the last year and a half, life is so different than it was in March 2020 when I used to listen to the ambulances scream down the New York City Avenues. We don’t have special multiple page obituary sections of the newspaper anymore. Sometimes it feels like the end of the pandemic is just in reach, and it is. We just have to hold on a little longer.