RALEIGH — With a recent uptick in positive tests and COVID-19 cases, health officials in North Carolina say that the more contagious delta variant, first detected in India, is spreading rapidly throughout the state.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” said Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease expert at UNC-Chapel Hill. “The fire is that delta is spreading among the unvaccinated.”
Both the average number of new cases and the percentage of positive tests are starting to increase slightly, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The seven-day rolling average of new daily cases increased by 12% from the last week in June to the first week in July. Hospitalizations have also increased by 8% over the last week.
The delta variant comes as COVID-19 metrics had been decreasing rapidly for several months. Meanwhile, vaccines have become widely available, but vaccination rates have stagnated. Among those 18 or older in North Carolina, 56% have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
What’s most troubling is that more than 99% of new cases since May are among people who have not been vaccinated.
“We’re definitely concerned that we’re starting to see increases,” said Dr. Zack Moore, a state epidemiologist. “We believe that it is related to the emergence of the delta variant here in North Carolina.”
In the week prior to June 19, the latest available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 30% of new cases were estimated to be due to the delta variant in North Carolina.
A month earlier, that rate was just 0.7%.
Wohl said that the current rate is most likely even higher.
“The numbers have gone up just incredibly quickly just in the last few days,” Wohl said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re much higher.”
Nationwide, the delta variant currently accounts for over 50% of new cases.
In other countries, such as Israel and the United Kingdom, the delta variant accounts for up to 90% of new cases. Moore said North Carolina and the rest of the United States could be there soon.
“By the end of July, (the delta variant) will be far and away the most common variant that we have in North Carolina,” Moore said.
In an emailed statement from Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, spokesperson Ford Porter said the Democratic governor continues to urge vaccination as the delta variant spreads.
“The information we have now is that vaccines are safe and very effective against this and other COVID-19 variants,” Porter wrote.
However, Cooper doesn’t plan to reinstate COVID-19 restrictions.
“The governor does not plan to impose additional measures, but he agrees with health official recommendations that unvaccinated people should wear masks until they get their vaccines,” Porter wrote.
The vaccine still strongly protects against severe symptoms, hospitalizations and death. Wohl said that the medical community is waiting for more data.
“Just because you’re fully vaccinated doesn’t mean you’re wearing a bulletproof vest against the virus,” Wohl said.
He said risks of mild symptomatic illness have been present since clinical vaccine trials.
Given that the delta variant may cause more mild symptomatic illness in the vaccinated, Wohl said he still wears a mask in certain situations to protect others who may not be vaccinated.
“Whether the CDC says it or not, if you’re indoors, and you’re in a public place with a bunch of people who could be unvaccinated, I would wear a mask. It just makes good sense,” Wohl said. “It’s like wearing a seatbelt in your car or sunblock out in the sun.”
In a more controlled environment, where everyone is known to be vaccinated, Wohl said masks aren’t necessary.
Wohl said in the United Kingdom, where the adult first-dose vaccination rate is over 86%, the delta variant is still causing a surge in hospitalizations and deaths, almost entirely among those unvaccinated.