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Q&A: What To Know About The Delta Variant's Impact In North Carolina

A group of fifth-grade students remove their masks during an outdoor mask break.
A group of fifth-grade students remove their masks during an outdoor mask break.

Updated 3:10 p.m. August 23

North Carolina is in the midst of a new and powerful surge of COVID-19 cases. State health officials say the delta variant is responsible for the vast majority of recent infections.

This variant is more than twice as contagious as the original, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it's driving up the number of hospitalizations in North Carolina at an alarming rate, mostly among those who have not been vaccinated.

WUNC reporters Will Michaels and Laura Pellicer answer questions from listeners about this current period in the pandemic.

Right now, a little more than half of North Carolinians over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. And we know that more than 90% of cases since early May, according to state health officials, are among those who are not vaccinated. The CDC has been using a colored map to demonstrate which states have high rates of transmission. As it stands now nearly the entire state of North Carolina is red and classified as having a high rate of coronavirus transmission. Vaccinations are still the number one defense against COVID-19.

The now fully-FDA approved Pfizer vaccine, as well as the vaccines authorized for emergency use by the FDA, are all considered effective against severe sickness, hospitalization and death related to the delta variant. There is preliminary research into which vaccines are more effective against delta, but there is not a clear scientific consensus at this point.

The Mayo Clinic, a reputable health system, gathered some of the emerging research in a list of "key takeaways." They found the Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines range between 85% effective and 96% effective at preventing severe coronavirus disease from delta (based on different dosage numbers) — the kind of illness that could lead to hospitalization or death.

  • Johnson and Johnson self reports that their vaccine is 85% effective at preventing severe disease from delta.
  • Early research from Canada suggests one shot of Moderna is 96% effective at preventing severe disease from delta.
  • Early research from the U.K. suggests that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine is 96% effective at preventing severe disease from delta.

If you want to dive deeper into the available research, healthline.org has gathered much of the available studies together here.

Determining which variant of the coronavirus you have requires genomic sequencing, which can take several days after you get a positive test. As you can imagine, in the midst of a pandemic, it's most important to know as quickly as possible if you do or don't have the virus so you can quarantine. So, identifying the variant is not the top priority in testing. And because of that, it's only tested in a small percentage of positive cases.

Based on that sampling, right now, more than 90% of cases in North Carolina are linked to the delta variant. State health officials say the treatment and the public health response are the same for the delta variant or for other variants.

Experts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday, Aug. 18 that booster shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will become available for U.S. adults beginning in September.

At a media briefing that Wednesday afternoon, Governor Roy Cooper said the state is prepared to distribute those shots.

"We are ready for the third shot for those who are immunocompromised and we are ready for the booster shots. When they come, we're going to be ready to be fully operational," said Gov. Cooper.

The governor did not provide a more specific timeline.

The CDC Advisory Committee recently authorized a booster shot for immunocompromised people with certain high-risk conditions. The booster shots that have been recommended for those high-risk individuals are for people who already got two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Those third booster shots are being offered at limited sites in North Carolina.

If you are in that immunocompromised category, check with your county health department to see if the third shot is available near you.

There is no booster shot available right now for those who got the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. The CDC is still reviewing data about when or whether that will be necessary.

We heard from a WUNC listener who reported that they had increased pain and got their period about twice as often since getting the vaccine (what's known as breakthrough bleeding). Other people who menstruate have been reporting similar symptoms. A CDC spokesperson told NPR they're looking through their own data on symptom reporting at this time. We may be able to see a full study in the future on how menstrual cycles have been affected.

Researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have also collected over 140,000 reports from "people who say they've noticed a change in their periods after vaccination," according to reporting from NPR.

It's important to note that the university researchers found the changes to menstrual cycles generally lasted a couple of cycles.

The short answer is unsatisfying — we just don't know yet. Pfizer and Moderna did start vaccine trials for children back in the spring, and an FDA official told NBC News they expect those trials to be finished in September. Based on the data, the FDA's goal is to pass an emergency use authorization around the end of the year.

Remember, this is happening while the FDA evaluates whether to give full approval to COVID-19 vaccines for adults. That’s the agency's top goal right now.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Laura Pellicer is a producer with The State of Things (hyperlink), a show that explores North Carolina through conversation. Laura was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, a city she considers arrestingly beautiful, if not a little dysfunctional. She worked as a researcher for CBC Montreal and also contributed to their programming as an investigative journalist, social media reporter, and special projects planner. Her work has been nominated for two Canadian RTDNA Awards. Laura loves looking into how cities work, pursuing stories about indigenous rights, and finding fresh voices to share with listeners. Laura is enamored with her new home in North Carolina—notably the lush forests, and the waves where she plans on moonlighting as a mediocre surfer.
Will Michaels started his professional radio career at WUNC.