The highly infectious Delta has become California’s most identified variant of the coronavirus, a troubling development that underscores its danger to unvaccinated populations.
New data released by the California Department of Public Health say that 35.6% of coronavirus variants so far analyzed in June have been identified as the Delta variant, which was first identified in India. That’s a dramatic increase from May, when Delta accounted for just 5.6% of analyzed coronavirus cases in California and was the state’s fourth most identified variant.
Delta is now more widespread than the previous dominant strain, Alpha, which was first identified in the United Kingdom and accounted for 34.3% of analyzed coronavirus cases in June. Alpha was the state’s most dominant strain in April and May, outpacing the California variant, now known as Epsilon, which currently occurs in less than 2% of analyzed cases.
Delta might be twice as contagious as the initial variants of the coronavirus that spread rapidly around the globe last year.
“The rapid increase in the Delta variant suggests that this strain is more easily transmitted between people than other strains circulating in California,” the state Department of Public Health said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times.
“Nevertheless, there is evidence that vaccines available in the U.S. are effective against the Delta variant,” state officials added.
Delta is also spreading rapidly nationwide. The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said recent data show that 25% of analyzed coronavirus cases nationwide are of the Delta variant. In some areas of the country, nearly half of analyzed cases are Delta.
By contrast, from May 9 to May 22, Delta made up less than 3% of analyzed coronavirus samples nationwide.
There are reports of rapidly increasing Delta cases confirmed in Los Angeles County, too. The county started seeing upticks in early April. In May, the county had fewer than 20 identified Delta cases per week, but by June, there were 60 to 80.
For the week that ended June 19, Delta made up nearly 50% of all cases analyzed in L.A. County; four weeks earlier, it accounted for less than 5%.
Delta has been identified in 245 coronavirus cases so far in L.A. County, with early clusters identified in Palmdale and Lancaster. Fourteen cases of Delta occurred among residents of a single household.
The increase in the proportion of identified Delta cases comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations have started to rise again in L.A. County and across the state.
The number of Californians hospitalized for COVID-19 fell to 915 on June 12 — the lowest it has been since the state began tracking cases. But by Wednesday, 1,090 people were in hospitals statewide with COVID-19, a 16% increase, before dropping Thursday to 1,071.
COVID-19 hospitalizations in L.A. County hit a record low of 212 on June 12. But on Thursday, there were 275 hospitalized patients — a 30% increase, though far below the peak of 8,098 during the worst days of the pandemic.
State officials say they don’t expect California’s hospitals to once again be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients — there are simply too many vaccinated people around to imagine such a scenario.
But officials noted that it remains crucial that more Californians get vaccinated.
“We know our hospitalizations are creeping up — and most of the patients are unvaccinated. We also know the science is clear — getting vaccinated protects you AND those around you. Get vaccinated,” tweeted Gov. Gavin Newsom.
His comments echoed those by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious-diseases expert. He pointed to recent studies showing that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 88% effective against symptomatic disease from the Delta variant and 96% effective against hospitalization after two doses were administered. The AstraZeneca vaccine, which is not approved for use in the U.S. but uses similar technology to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, was found to be 92% effective against hospitalization.
“The best way to protect yourself against the virus and its variants is to be fully vaccinated. It works,” Fauci said.
Some officials, however, have said the science isn’t settled on whether some vaccinated people could be at higher risk of contracting the Delta variant and passing it to other people, while not getting severely sick themselves.
That was the reasoning behind the L.A. County Department of Public Health’s latest recommendation that even fully vaccinated people return to wearing masks in indoor public settings until more definitive information emerges about Delta.
L.A. County officials expressed worry over a recent doubling of new coronavirus cases of all variants. From June 25 to July 1, the county reported about 2,600 new cases; the previous week’s sum was about 1,100.
“Whenever you see a doubling of cases over a very short time, we all need to pay attention to…