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Healthcare

The Delta Variant Is The Dominant Coronavirus Strain In The U.S.

NOEL KING, HOST:

The CDC says the delta variant of COVID-19 now accounts for 51% of cases in the U.S., and in some parts of the country, it's responsible for about 80% of new cases. The COVID vaccines being used in this country still seem to be very effective at protecting against serious illness from the virus, and so yesterday, President Biden talked directly to Americans who haven't gotten the vaccine yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Please get vaccinated now. It works. It's free. It's never been easier, and it's never been more important. Do it now for yourself and the people you care about, for your neighborhood, for your country. It sounds corny, but it's a patriotic thing to do.

KING: With me now is Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University. Good morning, Dr. Jha.

ASHISH JHA: Good morning. Thanks for having me back.

KING: We're glad to have you. There was a lot in that news conference. President Biden offered strategies like visiting people in their homes or places of worship, sending more vaccines to local doctors. I thought these were things that the country was already doing. Am I right or wrong? And do you think this news conference yesterday will serve to convince people?

JHA: Well, I think it'll help. I mean, some of those things we were doing. But, you know, a lot of the focus, certainly in the first few months of the vaccine rollout, was the big centers, the mass vaccination sites. I think those are all shutting down, and rightly so. The numbers have gotten small. And now we really do have to focus on community pharmacies, community clinics, local places that people trust and where vaccine availability becomes really easy.

KING: As you watched President Biden speak and as you look at what's going on around the country, do you think there's anything more that the federal government could be doing to raise vaccination rates?

JHA: I think at the end of the day, this is really going to come down to local community leadership. So the federal government could be doing more to encourage those kinds of partnerships, let's say, between houses of worship and community clinics, et cetera. But I don't know that the federal government is going to be the most powerful source here. One thing the feds certainly can do is go ahead and approve these vaccines - you know, give full approval to the vaccines which are pending. I suspect that's going to be happening soon. But overall, this is really going to be community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood that this battle against COVID is going to be won.

KING: OK. Let's talk about the delta variant. The CDC says it's now the dominant strain in the U.S. Why is that significant?

JHA: Yeah. So the delta variant is the most contagious variant of this virus we have seen throughout the entire pandemic. And there's some evidence that it's also more deadly if you are infected with it. It's not surprising that it has become the dominant one. When it's the most contagious, it will eventually outcompete other variants. It's significant because it does get a lot of people sick very quickly. And we need to get people vaccinated. And the fact that it has moved this fast means there are a lot of communities and a lot of people who are still quite vulnerable to this virus.

KING: Let me ask you about some news out of Israel. The Ministry of Health in that country reported a significant drop in the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine in preventing infection right at about the same time the delta variant started spreading. Have you seen the Israeli data?

JHA: I've seen the reports. And, you know, I have some concerns about that analysis. First of all, Israel has generally done a very good job of...

KING: Yeah.

JHA: ...Tracking these things, so there isn't, like, a fundamental problem. But it's one analysis out of many. The same day the Israeli government released that, Canada released some results that suggested that the vaccine was highly effective against the delta variant - the variant. The U.K.'s Public Health England has released analysis that also shows the vaccine is extremely effective. So when you look at the big picture, I'm not worried that the vaccines are not going to hold up to the delta variant. I really do think they will.

KING: How worried are you, big picture, about the emergence of new variants over the next few weeks, months, year, whatever?

JHA: Yeah, it's hard not to be concerned. You know, this virus continues to surprise us. And we're running this very bizarre experiment that in the middle of a pandemic, we are vaccinating some people but not others. Large parts of the world are unvaccinated. And that really does set up the context for more variants. I think we're going to see more variants. Obviously, what we worry about is a variant that begins to really escape our vaccines. Haven't seen that yet, not worried that that will happen anytime soon. But that's got to be a concern that's at the back of our minds.

KING: OK. Dr. Ashish Jha is dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. Thanks, as always, for being with us, Dr. Jha.

JHA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.