Delta variant ‘on the way’ to being dominant COVID-19 strain, University of Utah health experts say

New strain spreads faster and could make the disease worse, doctors warn — but the vaccine can keep it in check.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A vial of saline and the Pfizer COVID19 vaccine at the Woods Cross High School pop-up clinic by Nomi Health, April 27, 2021.

People who don’t get vaccinated against COVID-19 are becoming more likely to get sick from the coronavirus, experts at the University of Utah say — because of the spread of the Delta variant.

“Choosing not to get vaccinated is a choice to ultimately get infected by this virus,” said Stephen Goldstein, a virologist and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Utah School of Medicine, on Tuesday during a briefing carried over Facebook Live.

The Delta variant of the coronavirus, which first emerged in India late last year, has already become the dominant strain of the virus in the United Kingdom and is approaching becoming the dominant strain in the United States, said Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the division of infectious diseases at University of Utah Health.

Data from the Utah Department of Health, Swaminathan said, “suggests that it is on its way to becoming dominant in Utah, if not already dominant.”

According to data from the UK, Swaminathan said, the Delta variant is about 50% more transmissible than earlier strains of the coronavirus — meaning it spreads much faster. The variant also appears to be more virulent, “that is to say, it can cause more serious disease,” Swaminathan said.

The way to stop the Delta variant, Swaminathan and Goldstein stressed, is to get vaccinated.

“Mutations occur when there’s a lot of virus replication,” Swaminathan said. “If it doesn’t have a new person to infect, that mutation doesn’t get transmitted. So when you have ongoing spread in a community, you have more variants.”

Swaminathan warned that in demographic groups where vaccination rates are low, “I suspect you’re going to have outbreaks in those groups.”

Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer at University of Utah Health, laid out the numbers, which show the younger the demographic group, the fewer Utahns in it have been vaccinated.

The latest figures from the Utah Department of Health show, Vinik said, that 66% of Utahns between 12 and 18, 50% of those between 19 and 29, 45% of people in their 30s, and 37% of those in their 40s still have not been vaccinated.

For older groups, the numbers are more encouraging: just 28% of Utahns in their 50s, 17% of those in their 60s, 8% of those in their 70s, and 12% of people 80 and older have yet to be vaccinated, according to UDOH’s statistics.

In the last three weeks, Utah’s rolling 7-day average of new COVID-19 cases has risen — from 202 per day on June 2 to 293 a day on Monday. Much of that rise, Vinik noted, is among two age groups: those 25-44, and those 15-24.

“If you’re not going to get vaccinated — either right now or ever, for whatever reason — you would be advised to continue with the non-pharmaceutical interventions: Masking, staying out of crowded indoor spaces especially but generally away from crowds,” Goldstein said. “If you want to not have to do those things, and you want to try to avoid becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2, and the Delta variant in particular, then you should get vaccinated.”