COMMENTARY

COVID-19: Delta Variant Is Raising the Stakes

Robert T. London, MD

August 04, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Like many colleagues, I have been working to change the minds and behaviors of acquaintances and patients who are opting to forgo a COVID vaccine. The large numbers of these unvaccinated Americans, combined with the surging Delta coronavirus variant, are endangering the health of us all.

When I spoke with the 22-year-old daughter of a family friend about what was holding her back, she told me that she would "never" get vaccinated. I shared my vaccination experience and told her that, except for a sore arm both times for a day, I felt no side effects. Likewise, I said, all of my adult family members are vaccinated, and everyone is fine. She was neither moved nor convinced.

Finally, I asked her whether she attended school (knowing that she was a college graduate), and she said "yes." So I told her that all 50 states require children attending public schools to be vaccinated for diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, polio, and the chickenpox – with certain religious, philosophical, and medical exemptions. Her response was simple: "I didn't know that. Anyway, my parents were in charge." Suddenly, her thinking shifted. "You're right," she said. She got a COVID shot the next day. Success for me.

When I asked another acquaintance whether he'd been vaccinated, he said he'd heard people were getting very sick from the vaccine – and was going to wait. Another gentleman I spoke with said that, at age 45, he was healthy. Besides, he added, he "doesn't get sick." When I asked another acquaintance about her vaccination status, her retort was that this was none of my business. So far, I'm batting about .300.

But as a physician, I believe that we – and other health care providers – must continue to encourage the people in our lives to care for themselves and others by getting vaccinated. One concrete step advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is to help people make an appointment for a shot. Some sites no longer require appointments, and New York City, for example, offers in-home vaccinations to all NYC residents.

Also, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Aug. 3 the "Key to NYC Pass," which he called a "first-in-the-nation approach" to vaccination. Under this new policy, vaccine-eligible people aged 12 and older in New York City will need to prove with a vaccination card, an app, or an Excelsior Pass that they have received at least one dose of vaccine before participating in indoor venues such as restaurants, bars, gyms, and movie theaters within the city. Mayor de Blasio said the new initiative, which is still being finalized, will be phased in starting the week of Aug. 16. I see this as a major public health measure that will keep people healthy – and get them vaccinated.

The medical community should support this move by the city of New York and encourage people to follow CDC guidance on wearing face coverings in public settings, especially schools. New research shows that physicians continue to be among the most trusted sources of vaccine-related information.

Another strategy we might use is to point to the longtime practices of surgeons. We could ask: Why do surgeons wear face masks in the operating room? For years, these coverings have been used to protect patients from the nasal and oral bacteria generated by operating room staff. Likewise, we can tell those who remain on the fence that, by wearing face masks, we are protecting others from all variants, but specifically from Delta – which the CDC now says can be transmitted by people who are fully vaccinated.

Why did the CDC lift face mask guidance for fully vaccinated people in indoor spaces in May? It was clear to me and other colleagues back then that this was not a good idea. Despite that guidance, I continued to wear a mask in public places and advised anyone who would listen to do the same.

The development of vaccines in the 20th and 21st centuries has saved millions of lives. The World Health Organization reports that 4 million to 5 million lives a year are saved by immunizations. In addition, research shows that, before the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, vaccinations led to the eradication of smallpox and polio, and a 74% drop in measles-related deaths between 2004 and 2014.

Protecting the Most Vulnerable

With COVID cases surging, particularly in parts of the South and Midwest, I am concerned about children under age 12 who do not yet qualify for a vaccine. Certainly, unvaccinated parents could spread the virus to their young children, and unvaccinated children could transmit the illness to immediate and extended family. Now that the CDC has said that there is a risk of SARS-CoV-2 breakthrough infection among fully vaccinated people in areas with high community transmission, should we worry about unvaccinated young children with vaccinated parents? I recently spoke with James C. Fagin, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and immunologist, to get his views on this issue.

Dr. Fagin, who is retired, said he is in complete agreement with the Food and Drug Administration when it comes to approving medications for children. However, given the seriousness of the pandemic and the need to get our children back to in-person learning, he would like to see the approval process safely expedited. Large numbers of unvaccinated people increase the pool for the Delta variant and could increase the likelihood of a new variant that is more resistant to the vaccines, said Dr. Fagin, former chief of academic pediatrics at North Shore University Hospital and a former faculty member in the allergy/immunology division of Cohen Children's Medical Center, both in New York.

Meanwhile, I agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations that children, teachers, and school staff and other adults in school settings should wear masks regardless of vaccination status. Kids adjust well to masks – as my grandchildren and their friends have.

The bottom line is that we need to get as many people as possible vaccinated as soon as possible, and while doing so, we must continue to wear face coverings in public spaces. As clinicians, we have a special responsibility to do all that we can to change minds – and behaviors.

London Robert T. London, MD, is a practicing psychiatrist who has been a newspaper columnist for 35 years, specializing in and writing about short-term therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and guided imagery. He is author of "Find Freedom Fast" (New York: Kettlehole Publishing, 2019). He has no conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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