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US govt. document warns officials ‘the war has changed’ as delta variant rages

Pedestrians wearing protective mask pass in front of the Fargo Theatre in downtown Fargo, North Dakota, US, on Oct. 14, 2020. The country is currently grappling with the delta variant of the coronavirus. (Getty Images)

The delta variant of the coronavirus, which first emerged in India, has spread across the US and is causing more severe illness than earlier variants, according to an internal US government document.

The document, a part of internal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) slide presentation, notes that the new Covid-19 variant spreads as easily as chickenpox, urging officials to “acknowledge the war has changed.”

The internal CDC document highlights the struggle of the top US public health agency to persuade people to embrace vaccination and prevention measures, including mask-wearing, as cases continue to surge across the country, Washington Post reported on Thursday.

The document, underlining urgency of the move, calls for revamping public messaging to show that vaccination is the best defense against the novel variant that is relatively more contagious than other variants, spreading more swiftly than Ebola or the common cold.

It refers to a combination of recently obtained, still-unpublished data from outbreak investigations and outside studies showing that vaccinated individuals infected with delta may be able to transmit the virus as easily as those who are unvaccinated, the Post reported.

“I finished reading it significantly more concerned than when I began,” Robert Wachter, chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, is quoted as saying.

Highest Covid-19 cases

Pertinently, United States reported the highest number of new COVID-19 cases in the world in the last week, according to a report by World Health Organization (WHO).

Amid a surge of COVID cases fueled by the Delta variant, the US reported 500,332 new cases for the week which ended on July 25, according to WHO. The country saw a 131-percent increase in new infections compared with the week before.

The total number of infections in the world's worst-hit country have reached close to 35 million while the fatalities have risen to over 612 thousand.

The sharpest increases in Covid-19 cases are in US states with lower vaccination rates, such as Florida, Texas, and Missouri, according to the WHO.

The CDC document has confirmed what the WHO report pointed to – the new wave of the pandemic.

US scientists, the report notes, were so alarmed by the new research that the agency earlier this week significantly changed guidance for vaccinated people even before making new data public.

Mandatory masking

The data cited in the CDC document forced the top public health agency to issue new recommendations that call for everyone — both vaccinated and unvaccinated — to wear masks indoors in public settings in certain circumstances, a federal health official is quoted as saying in the report.

One of the slides in the CDC presentation states that there is a higher risk among older age groups for hospitalization and death relative to younger people, regardless of vaccination status. Another slide estimates that there are 35,000 symptomatic infections per week among 162 million vaccinated people in the country.

The document outlines “communication challenges” driven by cases among vaccinated people, including concerns from local health departments about the efficacy of vaccines.

“Although it’s rare, we believe that at an individual level, vaccinated people may spread the virus, which is why we updated our recommendation,” a federal health official is quoted by the Post. “Waiting even days to publish the data could result in needless suffering and as public health professionals we cannot accept that.”

The damning CDC document came two days after CDC Director Rochelle Paula Walensky announced reversal in ruling on masking among people who are vaccinated.

New communication strategy

The document presents new science but also suggests new strategy on communication, noting that public trust in vaccines may be undermined when people experience or hear about breakthrough cases.

The CDC’s revised mask guidance stops short of what the internal document calls for. “Given higher transmissibility and current vaccine coverage, universal masking is essential to reduce transmission of the Delta variant,” it states.

The document makes clear that vaccination provides substantial protection against the virus. But it also states that the CDC must “improve communications around individual risk among [the] vaccinated” because that risk depends on a host of factors, including age and whether someone has a compromised immune system.

It underscores what scientists and experts have been saying for months: It is time to shift how people think about the pandemic.

“We really need to shift toward a goal of preventing serious disease and disability and medical consequences, and not worry about every virus detected in somebody’s nose,” Kathleen Neuzil, a vaccine expert at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is quoted as saying in the Post report.

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