COVID-19 Delta Variant in NJ: Risks Climb with Increased Transmission, Youngest Most Susceptible


In a media briefing yesterday, NJDOH Deputy Commissioner Dr. David Adinaro warned that the dominant COVID strain is 60 percent more transmissible and targets people aged 5 to 29 twice as often as anyone over 50.

By Matt Skoufalos | July 30, 2021

COVID-19 14-day case trends ending July 28, 2021. Credit: FEMA.

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) “delta” variant (B.1.617.2) has rampaged across the country, COVID-19 case counts in New Jersey have climbed commensurately.

Residents must continue to step up and be vaccinated even as they resume mitigation measures like masking and social distancing to push back against the latest wave of the pandemic, which threatens to derail the gains made against this latest iteration of the virus.

In an address to reporters on Thursday, Dr. David Adinaro, Deputy Commissioner of Public Health Services at the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH), outlined the scope of the risks from the delta variant in terms of rapidly escalating infection and hospitalization rates.

“We had had a pretty good summer up to about two weeks ago,” Adinaro said, “and as you can see, that’s changed a lot.”

Daily positive case counts have climbed from fewer than 200 PCR-confirmed cases per day around Fourth of July weekend to more than 800 per day just a few weeks later.

Adinaro noted that New Jersey had logged more than 1,400 positive cases July 29, a combination of PCR-confirmed (1,100) test results and presumptive positive cases (300-plus) from rapid antigen tests.

Along the way, hospitalizations have climbed from 267 patients on July 3 to nearly 500 as of July 29, with related increases in ICU populations (up from 50 to 75) and ventilator usage (up from 25 to 33). Adinaro reported that “99 percent of those hospitalized are unvaccinated or under-vaccinated” against the virus.

“Those who are not fully vaccinated or unvaccinated are at much higher risk than those who have been fully vaccinated,” he said.

“Vaccines are intended to reduce hospitalizations and death, and continue to work well against Delta variant, but we are seeing more mildly symptomatic and asymptomatic cases in fully vaccinated individuals.”

Delta variant: 60 percent more contagious, 2.5 times riskier for young people

Dr. David Adinaro, Deputy Commissioner of NJ Public Health Services. Credit: St. Joseph’s Health.

Of the 7.7 million New Jersey residents 12 and older who are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, 5.8 million (77 percent) have gotten at least one dose, and 5.2 million (68 percent) are fully immunized.

The “vast majority” are now able to access a vaccine in the neighborhoods where they live or work, Adinaro said, from pharmacies to clinics to physicians’ offices, and about 50,000 to 60,000 per week are still coming in for their initial doses.

But New Jersey must continue to drive those numbers up to counteract the widespread impact of the delta variant, which accounts for 75 percent of all new COVID-19 cases in New Jersey and 83 percent of all new cases nationwide.

It’s as much as 60 percent more contagious than the “alpha” (B.1.1.7) variant first detected in the United Kingdom, which was itself more transmissible than earlier strains of the virus.

Worse, the delta variant seems to be more easily transmitted among younger people: Adinaro said that those aged 5 to 29 are two-and-a-half-times more likely to become infected with the variant as those aged 50 and older. That’s an added concern for the safety of children younger than 12, who are not yet eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

“[Delta]  probably is the most transmissible of the variants that we’ve seen so far,” Adinaro said.

“It’s frustrating that with 75-percent-plus of adults vaccinated that we’re still in this position now,” he said. “We know that there’s a lot more to get to those 7.7 million who are currently eligible.”

Ambulatory Care Technician Sady Ferguson, right, administers a vaccination for COVID-19 to Medical Office Assistant Yvelisse Covington at University Hospital in Newark, NJ. Covington was among the first group of people in New Jersey to receive the vaccination. Credit: Kirsten Luce for The New York Times.

Vaccine hesitancy

Some of that work is yet to be done in ethnic and rural communities that may lack easier access to vaccination sites.

Demographically, about 16 percent of those New Jerseyans who’ve been vaccinated identify as Hispanic, 11 percent as Asian, and 8 percent as Black, versus the 43 percent of the total who identify as white.

The New Jersey Department of Health has continued to rely upon community leaders in faith-based and community organizations to broker those conversations in communities where vaccinations have failed to reach a majority of the population.

“[Vaccine]  hesitancy is a very large bucket category,” Adinaro said. “And some of the hesitancy is economic: ‘I don’t know if I can take a day off work if I get sick from the vaccine.’

“We also didn’t have the same penetrating availability of vaccine, particularly in a lot of our cities, and also in some of our rural areas, that we really needed to be highly effective, probably until, I would say, May or June,” he said.

“Our focus is to really take a close look at the areas where we’re lagging in vaccination rates, and to look at not just what do we do about hesitancy, but also, you know, to continue to talk about access,” Adinaro said.

Of course, some vaccine hesitancy is connected to misinformation about the virus and the vaccine, which Adinaro said is par for the course in “a society of free speech; a culture of individualism where people can believe a variety of things.

“I am concerned that some of the misinformation people are much more passionate when they are talking about the vaccine,” he said. “We’ve attempted to be much more polite, [but] the loudest voices are those that are spewing misinformation.

“There’s a difference between [saying] ‘I don’t want to get the vaccine’ and ‘The vaccine has magnets in it,’” Adinaro said.

“One is your beliefs; that’s fine. The other is false information, and we need to correct it,” he said. “It’s important for people in communities to speak up and be passionate about getting the information out.”

Coronavirus shoppers with masks. Credit: Tom Franklin.

Mask up, social-distance, get vaccinated

In the meantime, officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control down to local health departments are recommending that people continue to mask up in public, especially in areas of high transmission, regardless of their vaccination status.

Among their concerns is that if a COVID strain as highly transmissible as the delta variant continues to circulate while vaccinations stall, current vaccine formulations may not remain as effective as they are currently.

That’s on top of late-breaking news Friday from the CDC that fully vaccinated people may still be able to contract and spread COVID-19.

“I’m very worried we’re going to get to a point where we’re going to have a variant that is highly transmissible, and causes more severe disease, and our vaccines won’t hold up against it,” Adinaro said.

“The more often people get COVID, the more opportunities it has to mutate,” he said. “I think this is one of these strong arguments: if you’re not willing to get vaccinated for yourself, [do it] for your family, for your society.

“It is dangerous right now,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate so far; all the variants of interest or concern, our vaccines work well against. But you know, we’re always concerned that that may change. And that’s something we keep a close eye on.”

Read our ongoing round-up of COVID-19 coverage here.

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