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Containing the Delta variant

File photograph by Akil Simmons

The Delta variant of Covid-19 is well and truly in Bermuda now.

Last night, the health ministry reported that 92 people had Covid-19, up from just 19 a mere three weeks ago.

Of those 92 cases, the vast majority are the Delta variant, which is more infectious than any of its predecessors.

This is not a complete surprise as viruses often mutate, but that does not make it any less worrying.

The spread of the Delta variant has also added more fuel to the fire over the vaccine debate. The Delta variant seems to be able to break through vaccine protection more easily than other variants did.

Of even greater concern, once transmitted, the variant is more likely to infect others than people who tested positive from other variants.

It is not all bad. Immunised people who do get the virus tend to have fewer symptoms and are often asymptomatic, especially if they are younger.

This has led vaccine sceptics to declare that the vaccines are pointless and instead the world should simply accept the existence of Covid-19 and live normal lives.

Nothing could be more wrong. The rise of the Delta variant is an argument for vaccinations, not against them.

Non-immunised people are much more likely to contract the Delta variant than the vaccinated. The symptoms are likely to be much worse. This is borne out by the admittedly small sample of three hospital patients in Bermuda, none of whom were vaccinated.

Because a higher proportion of non-immunised people are likely to get the Delta variant, they are also more likely to pass it on. It is not yet clear if vaccinated people who have tested positive for the Delta variant but are asymptomatic can transmit it easily. There is also some evidence that vaccinated people with the Delta variant are likely to transmit it for a shorter time than those who are not.

According to the health minister, 42 per cent of all cases of Covid-19 were vaccinated people. Vaccine sceptics may use this as evidence that the vaccines do not work.

Indeed, the percentage is much higher among those who were tested after travelling — 58 per cent. This stands to reason. The vast majority of travellers are vaccinated, so a higher proportion than in the general population is to be expected when they are tested, especially if they are asymptomatic.

For local transmissions, the situation is reversed. Sixty-six per cent of people who tested positive from local transmissions were unvaccinated, and this is in line with the international experience. Since about 65 per cent of the population is immunised, it also means that the proportion of unvaccinated people who are testing positive is also much higher.

Couple this with vaccinated people being less likely to suffer symptoms and you have a powerful argument for those who continue to hesitate about vaccinations to go ahead and get them.

If an unvaccinated person gets the virus, they are more likely to experience severe symptoms and it would also appear they are more likely to pass it on over a longer period of time. If they are exposed to an unvaccinated person, that person is also more likely to get it, and to experience worse symptoms.

By contrast, a vaccinated person is less likely to contract the virus, is less likely to experience severe symptoms and is less likely to pass it on.

If Bermuda could move from the 65 per cent plateau of vaccinations across the whole population to more than 70 per cent or even 75 per cent, that would reduce the number of people likely to get the variant, the severity of their symptoms and their likelihood of passing it on to others, including the elderly who are most vulnerable.

Given that vaccinations have stalled and the Government now seems to have given up on increasing vaccinations, this will not happen within the next three weeks, even if the 3,000 or so people needed to get Bermuda to the 70 per cent target got their first shots this week.

This means that if the variant continues to spread, as it likely will, then social-distancing requirements will need to be introduced as soon as possible. Although only three people are in hospital now, this may well rise.

Why? Because in the absence of herd immunity, early containment efforts are the only other proven way of containing an outbreak.

Therefore, the Government should now, as a matter of urgency, curtail the number of large-event exemptions from the requirement that gatherings should have no more than 50 people present. It may also be necessary to go back to reducing entry to interior public spaces to control the spread.

These steps needs to be taken now to prevent more severe restrictions such as curfews or a further shelter-in-place order being needed.

It must also begin to consider what the new school year will look like in a little more than a month. As of Tuesday, there were 15 children under the age of 10 and a further eight people between the ages of 10 and 19 with Covid-19.

Controlling the spread of a highly virulent variant within schools, and more importantly, preventing its spread to more vulnerable age groups, including teachers, is going to be critical.

The education ministry is apparently planning what it is going to do and should let the public know as soon as possible. There was a suggestion that in-person learning will still take place, but care must be taken with this.

Bermuda can avoid another lockdown if it renews its pursuit of herd immunity now. If there are people who have not been vaccinated already, they should do it now.

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Published August 13, 2021 at 8:13 am (Updated August 13, 2021 at 8:21 am)

Containing the Delta variant

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