It is clear that the Delta variant is more contagious than previous COVID-19 strains, as evidenced by rising case numbers in the US and around the world. The big question, however, was whether it causes more severe illness than previous versions of the virus that causes COVID-19.
A peer-reviewed study published Friday in The Lancet Infectious Diseases suggests that it is possible. According to the paper, people in England who contracted the Delta variant were more likely to be hospitalized than those who contracted the Alpha variant. The vast majority of the more than 43,000 COVID-positive people in the study were either unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.
Relatively few of these 43,000 people – about one in 50 total – were hospitalized within two weeks of their first positive test, but infection with the Delta variant appeared to roughly double their chances after considering age and other risk factors. Finding traces with previous research in Scotland and released in The lancet in June.
Infection with the Delta variant also increased the chances of seeking emergency care, even if they ultimately weren’t hospitalized, according to the new study. Just over 4% of those who tested positive for the alpha variant were hospitalized or treated in the emergency room within two weeks of their first positive test, compared to nearly 6% of those infected with the Delta strain.
The study analyzed UK hospital data from late March to late May 2021. In March, the alpha variant infections, which first appeared in the UK last year, exceeded the number of Delta cases. In the weeks at the end of the study period, the opposite was the case.
The study had some limitations. The authors did not have access to data on the underlying diseases, which are a known risk factor for more severe cases of COVID-19; however, they analyzed the age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and travel histories of the patients. It is also difficult to control personal factors that could make someone more or less likely to receive medical care, such as: B. individual risk tolerance or cultural norms. And although the researchers tried to only analyze people who were hospitalized for COVID-19, it is possible that a small number of people were admitted for some other reason and happened to test positive during routine screening.
After all, less than 2% of people in the study were fully vaccinated – a sample size too small to assess whether Delta also increases hospitalization risk in vaccinated people, the researchers wrote. This rather underlines the benefit of the vaccination: So few immunized persons who tested positive for the virus hardly appeared in the study population.
Already in the US, Delta seems to be changing some people’s views on the pandemic. It has led to sobering spikes in pediatric hospital stays – a wake-up call for many parents – and led some lawmakers to reintroduce inner mask regulations. It also seems to inspire people to get vaccinated in areas where it is most prevalent.
By illustrating how risky Delta can be for unvaccinated populations, the new research could maintain this dynamic.
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