Current Issues for Safe Schools
As attention shifts from taking the most immediate, short-term steps to re-open, to the long-term issues of being able to stay open, there are a number of mitigation strategies and issues that come into focus. In this weekly report, we address those issues, highlight recommendations and suggestions from the CDC, the US Department of Education, and other leading authorities.
What to Know About the COVID Variants Making Headlines
July 28, 2021
Current headlines featuring words like “delta,” “gamma,” and “lambda” might conjure images of sororities and fraternities, but they are instead, reports on the COVID variants that have been appearing worldwide. Viral variants are a natural part of viral evolution, and the proliferation of variants alone should be cause for concern.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, MD, PhD, a Yale Medicine pediatric infectious diseases specialist and a vaccinologist, confirmed this natural course of events in a Yale Medicine online article updated July 22 by acknowledging, “All viruses evolve over time and undergo changes as they spread and replicate.”
Although many variants or viral changes can be inconsequential, some changes can elicit cause for concern if those changes make a disease more potent. Thus, while there are actually many variants of COVID, 5 key variants have earned spots on experts’ watch lists: Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma, and Lambda (with Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Gamma being the variants most notable in the U.S.). Much is still unknown about some of these variants, but the following information may be useful in understanding the variants currently making headlines.
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What is the dominant COVID variant in the U.S. today?
As reported by multiple news outlets including the Wall Street Journal, the CDC has confirmed that the Delta variant is now the most common COVID strain here in the U.S., accounting for 83% of analyzed infections as of July 2021. However, it is worth noting that there have been “hyperlocal” outbreaks of other variants within the U.S.
Per The Hill, the state of Illinois “is reporting six times as many gamma variant cases of the coronavirus than delta variant ones.” By contrast, NPR reports that less than 1% of U.S. cases in the past 4 weeks have been identified as Lambda variant, with the first case having been reported at a Houston, Texas, hospital this past week. Commenting on the Lambda cases reported in Texas, Dr. S. Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic biology at Houston Methodist, said that while aspects of the Lambda variant may be cause for concern, the Delta variant remains a greater threat. In an article from USA Today, he cautioned, “I know there’s great interest in lambda, but I think people really need to be focused on Delta.”
What is different about the COVID Delta variant?
The most notable attribute of the COVID Delta variant is how highly contagious it is, with experts saying that this variant spreads 50+% faster than earlier strains. Speaking to CNN, Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, commented, “This is the most contagious version of the virus we have seen throughout the whole pandemic.” What makes the Delta variant so much more contagious and capable of rapid spread?
A group of Chinese researchers from the Guangdong Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently published a study examining the Delta variant. In their article entitled “Viral infection and transmission in a large well-traced outbreak caused by the Delta SARS-CoV-2 variant,” the co-authors shared their findings of a “higher viral replication rate” for the Delta variant, resulting in viral loads “~1000 times higher” than other COVID strains. They also noted that this increased infectiousness of the Delta variant can occur in early, pre-symptomatic stages of infection, contributing further to the variant’s high transmissibility.
In addition to this increased degree of contagion, the Delta variant has also exhibited some differences in symptoms. According to Dr. Yildirim of Yale Medicine, “It seems like cough and loss of smell are less common [with the Delta variant]. And headache, sore throat, runny nose, and fever are present, based on the most recent surveys in the U.K., where more than 90% of the cases are due to the Delta strain.”
What is the best protection against current and future COVID variants?
According to the CDC, the best means of protection is to take measures to mitigate the risks of contagion. That means monitoring protocols, and most importantly to make sure the air in classrooms, halls, and offices is clean, sanitized, and virus-free.
With federal assistance available through the CARES Act, the affordability of mitigation products makes them more available and accessible for school districts across the country.