Just as we thought life was getting somewhat back to normal, we’re faced with the harsh reality that we’re far from where we think we are, or where we should be. The Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 is now rampant throughout the United States, and this is a big problem. Cases have increased exponentially over the past month, rising from the lowest that we’ve seen in the US since the outbreak of the pandemic, to case numbers well in excess of 100,000 per day which is going to have a severe impact on the US healthcare system.
What is driving this outbreak?
Compared to the original strain of COVID, the Delta variant is considerably more contagious. To measure this, epidemiologists use a reproductive number (R0) to indicate how many people that an infected person is likely to infect. The original strain of COVID had an R0 of 2.3 – 2.7, whereas the Delta variant has an R0 of 5.0 – 9.5. To put this into perspective, the 1918 influenza pandemic had an estimated R0 of between 2.0 – 3.0 and it infected over 30% of the global population and claimed the lives of up to 50 million people.
In addition to the increased contagiousness of this disease, people’s behavior has changed which has had a direct impact on this outbreak. Through public pressure, the decline in case numbers, and the vaccine rollout, states have opted to revoke mask mandates even though they have been instrumental in protecting public health. With summer in full swing, people have been going about their lives with more normality, which has seen social distancing cease allowing for the spread of COVID between asymptomatic people. On top of this, vaccine uptake is now very poor which is preventing states from reaching herd immunity numbers. With all these factors combined, this has given the variant the perfect conditions to thrive and continue to spread.
How does this impact the healthcare system?
The Delta variant has a few characteristics that are of concern for the healthcare system. Studies are finding that people may remain infectious for a longer period of up to 18 days, versus 13 with previous variants, which can add to people unknowingly spreading the infection. There are also studies that suggest this variant has the potential to make people sicker, with findings showing higher chances of hospitalization and death compared to previous variants; and alarmingly, younger people, including children, are now being more severely affected with COVID and being hospitalized.
Hospitals have a limited capacity in terms of their infrastructure, resources and staff. More cases, means more people in hospital beds and once these are full, that’s it, people will be turned away. Looking at the bigger picture, this doesn’t just impact those with COVID, this also delays healthcare services for things such as screenings for cancer, elective surgeries, and non-life-threatening treatments. This has a flow-on effect which will later impact the health system as this creates a backlog, and subsequently, health issues may not picked up when they need to be, such as cancers.
What can we do?
Everyone has a part to play. Throughout the pandemic we’ve seen that simple measures can make a real difference and a combined effort is where we can see the best results. These include wearing masks when in public, sanitizing hands, practicing social distancing (when appropriate), staying home when showing any COVID symptoms and getting vaccinated. Our healthcare system needs our support and by doing these simple measures, this helps them to protect us, so they can provide the healthcare that we need, and not just for COVID-19.
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