COVID-19 variant threatens unvaccinated populations as state, nation lag behind vaccine goals

Kevin Vu

Students could likely contract a new and more infectious variant of COVID-19 if they are unvaccinated, a UT professor who has been tracking COVID-19 variants said. 

The World Health Organization reported a new COVID-19 variant, called delta, which was first identified in India and appears to be more transmissible than the alpha variant, first identified in the United Kingdom. It will likely become the dominant COVID-19 strain in the coming weeks, according to CDC director Rochelle Walensky. The variant makes up about 20% of new cases in the United States, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the president. 

Amy Young, chief clinical officer for UT Health Austin, said the University assumes there are already cases of the variant circulating in the University and Austin community. She said the University will continue to offer vaccinations to staff, students and faculty and have plans underway to increase accessibility to vaccines and testing when students return in the fall.

“UT has the health and safety of students, faculty and staff at the forefront of its thoughts for reopening for the fall and continues to support ongoing testing and vaccination,” Young said in an email.

Vaccination rates have fallen far below the Biden administration’s goals in Texas and across the nation, so herd immunity will not yet be able to protect those who are unvaccinated, said Ilya Finkelstein, a molecular biosciences associate professor who has been tracking COVID-19 variants for the past year.

 In Texas, 49.13% of the population 12 and over is fully vaccinated, while in Travis County, 59.84% of those 12 and over are fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Finkelstein said the higher transmission rate from the delta variant means there could be local epidemics for unvaccinated individuals and communities.

“Unfortunately, there’s no other way to say it,” Finkelstein said. “If you’re not vaccinated at this point … and if you’re in a community of unvaccinated individuals, therefore there’s no real herd immunity in that community, delta will get to you. Get vaccinated. That’s the take-home message.”

Finkelstein said the world has experienced other variants such as alpha spreading rapidly. However, he said these variants will continue to mutate and spread unless they are brought under control by global vaccination efforts. 

“When you go into a dark kitchen at night and you see a cockroach on the floor, and you smoosh it, you don’t immediately assume that that was the only cockroach in your kitchen, you assume that you probably have a cockroach infestation,” Finkelstein said. “Same thing with these variants.”

More than 179 million Americans have received at least one vaccine dose as of Monday, about 53% of the United States population, which is much lower than President Joe Biden’s July 4 goal of 70%. However, only 23% of the global population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“America has reached a point where we’re at vaccine saturation. The rest of the world is still clamoring for vaccines,” Finkelstein said. “This is going to be a global problem, we’re going to see more fit variants continue to emerge until the world is vaccinated. The best thing we could do on a policy level (and) humanitarian level is to get vaccines out.”