As Illinois slowly approaches a 50% vaccination rate, health officials throughout the state are keeping tabs on a new variant of the COVID-19 virus. Called the “Delta” variant, it is a more contagious mutation of the 2019 novel coronavirus. It is currently the dominant strain of coronavirus in the United Kingdom, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) expects its presence in the U.S. to grow in the coming months. The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) reports that there are 64 confirmed cases of Delta COVID-19 in the state as of Thursday, June 17.
Besides being more contagious than the U.S.-dominant “Alpha” strain, the Delta variant can also produce more severe symptoms and health outcomes. Its growing prevalence in the U.S. complicates efforts to end the pandemic.
“[I’m] certainly concerned,” Dr. Rashmi Chugh, Medical Officer for the DuPage County Health Department said. “It’s been wreaking havoc in some parts of the world, particularly in the Indian subcontinent and now in the UK… and it’s picking up in prevalence in the U.S. now.”
Protected By Vaccines
Dr. Chugh, along with other state and county health departments, said the strategy for handling the Delta variant is similar to that for the Alpha variant. Face masks, social distancing, frequent hand washing and surface sanitation, and especially vaccination are all necessary for a robust anti-virus response. Current vaccines, though designed with the Alpha variant in mind, have proven to be effective in combating the effects of the Delta variant.
“Two doses of the Pfizer vaccine were shown to be 88% effective against the Delta variant,” a statement from the Will County Health Department said. “We should be concerned as Delta variant is more contagious and may be associated with a higher risk of hospitalization than the original COVID-19 strain. Vaccination remains the best protection.”
Dr. Chugh echoed this sentiment, and added that it was the lack of vaccination that contributed to the continued spread of all Covid strains.
“Those who are fully vaccinated are considered to be protected… but we still have COVID-19 circulating in our county and in our state and certainly in the U.S.,” she said, “and it will continue so long as we have pockets of unvaccinated persons. ”
According to the DuPage County Health Department, 54.15% of all DuPage residents have been fully vaccinated as of Thursday, June 17. By the same date, the Will County Health Department reported that 45.05% of residents were fully vaccinated. Thursday’s seven-day rolling average for Covid-19 positive test rates in both Illinois Region 7 (Will, Kankakee Counties) and Region 8 (Kane, DuPage Counties) stood at 1.2%.
Incentivizing Public Health
Vaccination may be the best protection against all variants of COVID-19, but the recent decline in vaccination rates across the U.S. show that it is not always popular. To combat this in Illinois, Governor J.B. Pritzker on Thursday announced the “All In For The Win” lottery. It consists of $10 million in prizes.
“[There are] $7 million in cash prizes for residents [aged] 18 and over, and $3 million in scholarship awards for residents aged 12 – 17 years old,” Pritzker said. “How can you get in on the action? Well, you just have to be vaccinated.”
Pritzker explained that starting July 8 and continuing through the summer, the Illinois State Lottery will select recently vaccinated adults to receive prizes valued between $100,000 and $1 million. Recently vaccinated children will be eligible to win a Bright Start 529 college savings plan worth $150,000 each. More details about the lottery are detailed at the Illinois state website.
Mandating Public Health
If million-dollar vaccine lotteries are the carrot, vaccine mandates are the stick. Some universities and workplaces already require students and employees, respectively, to be vaccinated. Despite this trend, neither the federal nor Illinois state government has implemented any kind of vaccine mandate. “Vaccine mandates” may sound scary to those who are vaccine-skeptical, but Dr. Chugh said they have proven effective in fighting other viral infections. For those viruses that cause common illnesses such as the flu, they have even become routine and expected.
“Generally, it’s been shown – for example, with school immunization requirements – that immunization requirements are effective at improving [virus protection] coverage levels… It generally helps the community to reduce and interrupt transmission,” she said.
There are some groups that are normally exempt from immunization requirements, such as those with vaccine ingredient allergies or those with religious tenets prohibiting vaccination. But even these populations generally stand to benefit from vaccination requirements, Dr Chugh said.
“Even with those exemptions, having a requirement in place, that’s generally an effective way to help improve coverage levels as well as, overall, providing a safe workplace or school setting,” Dr. Chugh said.
Preparing for the Delta
With the increasing spread of the Delta variant, the IDPH and county health systems are urging all unvaccinated residents to receive vaccination, now more than ever. In DuPage County alone, Dr. Chugh said there are over 250 providers where residents can get their shots. This includes state vaccination sites, private pharmacies and clinics, and the DuPage County Complex in Wheaton.
Will County likewise sponsors numerous vaccine sites and events. One such event is “Dykota’s Vaccine Clinic,” which will be held Saturday, June 26 at Humphrey Middle School in Bolingbrook. It is named in memory of Dykota Morgan, a 15-year old young woman who recently succumbed to Covid-19 infection.
“For anyone who is eligible and not yet vaccinated… run, do not walk, to get vaccinated,” Dr. Chugh said. “It is saving lives.”
Naperville News 17’s Dave Byrnes reports.
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