About our “The COVID-19 Crisis” series
“The COVID-19 Crisis” series is a weekly update by Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz covering the latest developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. Explore the entire blog series.
New information about the danger of the Delta variant gives us good reason to increase our level of caution. We also have the first reported evidence of transmission of COVID-19 from those who were already vaccinated, and reassuring news that the vaccines remain highly effective in preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death. With this in mind, government agencies and employers have begun requiring vaccination or routine testing for in-person employees in efforts to reduce further spread.
There were over 86,000 new reported cases on July 28, and we are at a seven-day rolling average of over 67,000 cases a day. This is similar to the rate of new infections in mid-April and almost four times as high as at the beginning of this month. New hospitalizations are up to about 5,500 per day, about three times as high as the beginning of this month. In general, the rise in hospitalizations has been much lower (proportionately) to the increase in cases due to the Delta variant.
The seven-day moving average was 67,556 for July 29, 2021.
Vaccination rates continue at a bit over 600,000 new shots per day in the U.S. At this rate it would take seven months for us to get to 75% of the population. Vaccinations given today will help mitigate future COVID-19 waves but are unlikely to meaningfully decrease the current increase in cases, as it takes between four to six weeks after the first inoculation to develop robust immunity.
The Washington Post published an internal CDC presentation on Thursday that documented the contagiousness of the Delta variant. Current studies suggest that its “R0 value,” the measure of how many people would be infected by each new case, is close to five. The initial novel coronavirus strain had an R0 of between two and three people. This means that exponential spread happens much more quickly — and is why increasing our vaccination rate is critical. It also explains the terrible tragedy in India in April and May, when as many as four million may have died of COVID-19.
The CDC reported that before Delta, those who were vaccinated and had “breakthrough” infections had 40% lower viral loads. But the Delta variant has meant that patients in general have 10 times higher respiratory viral loads — and those with breakthrough infections have viral loads that are similar to the viral loads of those who are unvaccinated. An outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts, demonstrated the first fully investigated cases of transmission of virus from one fully vaccinated person to another — a worrisome sign indeed. This means we can no longer say with confidence that those who are vaccinated are unlikely to transmit the virus if they get infected.
Worse, the CDC cites three studies that suggest that the Delta variant is more dangerous:
The information about the contagiousness of the Delta variant explains the CDC’s new recommendation that the vaccinated should mask and distance in areas of substantial or high transmission. With a more contagious virus in widespread circulation, even the vaccinated are better protected when they add the additional layer of protection a mask provides. But masks are a good addition to vaccination, not a substitute. Those at higher risk should consider using the most effective masks, such as those labeled N95 or KN95, while indoors with others.
Even though there are more breakthrough infections given the increased viral loads, the vaccines remain incredibly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death. Information from the CDC shows that those who are vaccinated are eight times less likely to be infected and 25 times less likely to be hospitalized or die compared to the unvaccinated.
This week, the four billionth dose of vaccine was administered globally (344 million in the U.S.), so those who are worried the vaccine is “new” should be reassured and roll up their sleeves.
President Biden announced a series of government initiatives to address the Delta variant on Thursday. These include:
Employers have increasingly been doing just that. Vaccination mandates are already common in health care, and 55 health organizations including the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association and the American Nurses Association have recommended mandatory vaccination. Vaccination mandates are also common in higher education, which is good since colleges have been a major source of community outbreaks. We’ve also seen increasing adoption of vaccine mandates in financial services (Morgan Stanley, Blackrock) and technology (Google, Facebook, Netflix).
Even employers with a vaccine mandate will not have a 100% vaccination rate, since they will need to offer exemptions for religious and medical reasons. Therefore, employers who implement mandates will need an approach for those who remain unvaccinated. I believe frequent testing, as the federal government will implement, is the best approach. This testing should be once to twice a week depending on rate of community transmission.
There are two ways to frame a vaccination mandate:
These might appear equivalent, but they are likely to lead to different vaccine uptake rates. The first option is likely to get more people vaccinated because it creates an expectation of vaccination. But this will also create more protest. Some unions have already announced that they believe vaccine mandates must be subject to negotiation. The second option will lead to less blowback, but likely won’t be as effective at boosting vaccination, since it doesn’t create an expectation of vaccination. The “framing” matters substantially here.
A few clients have asked us about using premium surcharges (or reductions) as an incentive for getting vaccinated. Here is why I think this is not a good idea:
Jeff is an internal medicine physician and has led WTW’s clinical response to COVID-19 and other health-related topics. He has served in leadership roles in provider organizations and a health plan and is an Assistant Professor at Harvard Chan School of Public Health.