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Highly Contagious Delta Variant Could Be Dominant Coronavirus Strain In Florida Soon

Teenage boy sits in folding chair in a high school gymnasium while a nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccine into his arm.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Florida has vaccinated 26 percent of people between the ages of 12 and 19 and 35 percent of those between the ages of 20 and 29.

Said one health official: “Now that it has a foothold in Florida, it's just a matter of time before it becomes dominant. So it’s very concerning.”

The highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus now makes up 10% of all new cases in Florida, an official who is tracking the spread of the virus said on Wednesday.

The variant, which was first detected in India, could become the dominant version in the state within a few weeks, said Michael Teng, a virologist and an associate professor of medicine at University of South Florida Health.

It’s concerning to health officials because the Delta variant is more contagious than previous strains of the coronavirus, he said.

“There's no getting around the fact that it's going to spread here,” Teng said. “Now that it has a foothold in Florida, it's just a matter of time before it becomes dominant. So it’s very concerning.”

One factor contributing to increased transmission of this variant is that it appears to be more effective at binding to human cells. Though scientists are still studying the Delta variant’s characteristics, they believe it can spread in smaller amounts and with shorter periods of contact, Teng said.

For now, Teng said the Alpha variant, first found in the United Kingdom, is still the most dominant in Florida. But he predicts the Delta version could overtake it within the next three weeks.

Regardless of the variant, Teng said the coronavirus is spreading more quickly among unvaccinated people because health measures like masks and social distancing have been lifted.

All of the vaccines appear to provide protection against all strains of the virus, scientists say.

The problem is only about 56% of those eligible to be vaccinated in Florida have received at least one dose. As long as Florida's vaccination rate remains relatively low, new cases and hospitalizations will occur, Teng said.

“If you're not immune to the virus, then it will infect you,” he said. “The vaccination is the easy way to get immunity. Getting infected, you run the chance of death. But there have been 600,000 people in the United States alone, that have died from the virus. That's pretty bad odds.”

The vaccination rate among younger people is especially low. Florida has vaccinated 26% of youths between the ages of 12 and 19 and 35% of people between the ages of 20 and 29.

Although young people have generally fared better with the virus, Teng said 90% of hospitalizations in Florida are unvaccinated people.

“Young people are still going to the hospital. Young people are still dying from this disease, and it just really doesn't have to happen,” Teng said. “Both the mRNA vaccines and the J&J vaccine seem to do pretty well against pretty much every variant. There's really no reason not to get the vaccine.”

The Biden administration has set a nationwide goal of a 70 percent vaccination rate among U.S. adults by July 4. However, it is unlikely Florida will achieve that goal by the deadline, Teng said.

“Florida is not going to get there anytime soon,” he said.

Florida has done fairly well at vaccinating the state’s seniors but continues to lag behind other states among its younger population, Teng said.

William Marlow is the WUSF/Health News Florida intern for the summer of 2021.
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