Is the contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus a threat to Orange County?

Disneyland workers line the park's Main Street USA to greet guests
Heavy crowds are returning to Disneyland as the county reopens. However, a dangerous new variant of COVID-19 may be a problem later this year if the virus surges again in fall and winter.
(Hugo Martin / Los Angeles Times)

It isn’t yet clear how a contagious variant of the coronavirus will impact Orange County, but health officials are currently working to determine the threat level.

The Delta variant was first found in India, but now has California officials worried after it grew from 1.8% of analyzed coronavirus samples in April to 4.8% in May.

When asked whether the county is concerned with the new Delta variant, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, Orange County deputy health officer, said the county is still assessing the issue and is waiting on more data, including from hospitals. She said the county has seen an increase in the presence of the variant, with 15 cases being identified so far.

Chinsio-Kwong said data from the United Kingdom and other counties shows that the Delta variant is highly transmissible and can lead to more severe illness.

“But we’re still trying to determine how it’s affecting our population,” she said. “Unfortunately, that will take some time.”

Unsurprisingly, Chinsio-Kwong recommended people get vaccinated to fortify themselves against the new variant. She said that studies from the United Kingdom show that a single dose of an mRNA vaccine has at least 33% efficacy against the variant and up to 88% efficacy with two doses.

Chinsio-Kwong said the county doesn’t know whether the 15 residents who contracted the Delta variant were vaccinated.

“The best thing that everybody can do right now is, if they haven’t been fully vaccinated, to try to get fully vaccinated, especially with the county and the state wide open with no masking outdoors,” she said.

Dr. Margaret Bredehoft, deputy agency director for the county’s public health services, said probably less than 5% of the vaccines that have been distributed are the single-dose Johnson and Johnson.

While the J&J vaccine is not as effective as the two-dose vaccines, health officials say it offers considerably better protection than no vaccine at all.

Andrew Noymer, a UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, said he’s not currently worried about the variant because transmission of the virus is low, which he attributes partly to the seasonal nature of the virus.

“Delta is becoming a larger percentage, but it’s becoming a larger percentage of a very small pie,” Noymer said.

However, Noymer is concerned about Delta’s and other variant’s capacities to spread once fall and winter roll around.

“When COVID inevitably becomes worse, Delta, it seems to be more transmissible, and therefore it will kind of seek out and destroy ... the people who are not vaccinated,” Noymer said.

Chinsio-Kwong said she doesn’t think the variant will affect the county’s reopening, but health officials will need to monitor the situation closely.

She said the county is hoping to get at least 70% of the population vaccinated with at least one dose by July 4. Part of that effort is the county’s new mobile vaccine service. People can apply to have a vaccine service come to their neighborhoods on the Othena website and on the smartphone app. The program prefers at least 50 people be present for the vaccination.

Bredehoft said the new program is part of an effort to provide a convenient way for people in underserved communities to get vaccinated. Much has been written about the deficiencies of the county and state in serving the Latino community during the pandemic. The county’s push with super PODs at Disneyland and other high-traffic areas was a way to increase the volume of vaccines that were distributed, but for many, the sites could be intimidating and difficult to travel to.

“What we’re really trying to do is make it more of a community-led initiative, and we want to meet the community where they needed to meet us, instead of just having fixed super PODs,” Bredehoft said, pointing out that the mobile program will continue past July 4.

The 70% vaccination rate has long been touted during the pandemic as the necessary threshold for herd immunity. But, Bredehoft said the county will continue to push vaccinations after it reaches 70%.

“Some counties in California are already at 85%,” Bredehoft said. “So I think that we keep going until there’s no demand for it.”

Bredehoft also mentioned that it still isn’t known whether people will need a booster vaccine shot.

“Just around the corner is the potential of a booster,” Bredehoft said. “We don’t want to shut everything down too quickly and then have to restart up again.”

Noymer said that the county “can exhale” once an 85% vaccination rate of people over age 12 is reached.

“I think 70 is a very lowball estimate of herd immunity,” Noymer said. “Seventy is like the best-case scenario for herd immunity. Just hoping for the best-case scenario, and saying ‘we’ll figure it all out later,’ hasn’t served us very well.”

Noymer said there is a potential for another surge, though how substantial is unknown.

“I think there will be another wave of the pandemic in the fall or the winter, or both, and that is, by definition, another surge,” Noymer said, pointing out that he doesn’t think it will be as bad as the winter surge because of vaccinations.

“I think there’s a lot of different groups trying to predict what’s going to happen in the winter or the fall,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “These are all just predictions ... we really don’t know. It all depends on what variant is present. What we do know in the fall season is that more people go indoors, and when people go indoors there’s more risk of transmission of an aerosolized illness. That’s where the risk lies.

“Right now I think the assumption is that if our county gets beyond the 70% of eligible population being more closer to fully vaccinated, then we have a lower likelihood of experiencing a surge in the fall.”

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