With the delta variant driving the increased spread of coronavirus and a rise in diagnoses and hospitalizations, New Jersey officials are urging residents — regardless of vaccination status — to once again don masks in potentially risky indoor settings.

“Our metrics are trending in the wrong direction, and new data suggests the Delta variant is more transmissible even among vaccinated individuals, which is why we are making this strong recommendation,” Gov. Phil Murphy and New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Wednesday in a joint statement.

The two officials encouraged all New Jerseyans to mask-up in crowded indoor settings and for any inside gathering with people who are unvaccinated, or whose vaccination status is unknown. They also recommended residents wear face coverings around individuals who are immunocompromised or otherwise at greater risk for infection.

The virus’s delta variant, or B.1.617.2 — first identified in India in December — emerged in the United States in March and has since become the dominant strain, accounting for more than 82% of COVID-19 diagnoses by mid-July, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data from the New Jersey Department of Health indicates that, from mid-June to mid-July delta accounted for nearly three of four COVID-19 cases here, with no significant variation by region.

Viruses evolve as they spread — particularly among unvaccinated populations. New strains that emerged earlier this year in the United Kingdom (the alpha variant), South Africa (beta) and Brazil (gamma) were eventually discovered in this country, including in New Jersey patients. Delta is the latest to be added to the CDC’s list of four current “variants of concern.”

CDC assessment

“These variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on healthcare resources, lead to more hospitalizations and potentially more deaths,” the CDC notes.

Dr. Edward Lifshitz, director of the state health department’s communicable disease service, said while it is not known exactly how much more transmissible these variants of concern have become, a “good estimate” is that delta is twice as infectious as the original COVID-19 virus that circulated last year. There is growing evidence that vaccinated individuals can serve as conduits for the spread, Lifshitz said, even if they are asymptomatic or suffer only mild forms of the illness.

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While the CDC suggests existing COVID-19 treatments could be found less effective against some variants, Lifshitz said “we do not have any data to suggest that treatments are not working as well” against delta as with the original strain.

But delta is fueling the growing spread of the virus, experts agree, and contributing significantly to the rise in New Jersey’s transmission rate, or RT — a measure of transmission that has escalated quickly in recent weeks. Wednesday the RT topped 1.5, a level not seen for well over a year. Lifshitz said delta may be the largest factor in the RT’s increase, but other factors also impact the number, including the diminishing level of public precautions like social distancing and wearing masks.

Delta-driven cases

On Monday Gov. Phil Murphy said the state is now reporting an average of more than 900 new COVID-19 cases daily and related hospitalizations are up 30% over last week, due in large part to the emergence of the delta variant. Predictive modeling suggests these trends could continue into the fall, at which point the virus would leave thousands hospitalized and nearly 30 people dead, every day.

Vaccines remain the best protection against all forms of the virus —including delta — drastically reducing the risk of infection, severe illness and death, experts agree. More than 5.2 million people have been immunized in New Jersey and statistics from a health department analysis of state data indicate more than 99% of the current cases involve unvaccinated individuals.

But Lifshitz said that with new, more infectious variants like delta, vaccinated people can sometimes serve as a vehicle for COVID-19 transmission, passing the virus to others — even if they never know they have caught it themselves. “We are seeing more vaccinated individuals becoming infected, and there is increasing evidence that when they do become infected they may pass the virus along to others,” he said.

“Those others — particularly the unvaccinated or medically fragile — may have a worse outcome,” Lifshitz continued. “This is why we are encouraging vaccinated individuals to take extra steps to protect themselves from infection, including the wearing of masks when risks of being exposed to the virus are increased ([like] indoors with unvaccinated individuals). Of course, unvaccinated individuals should take even more stringent precautions to protect themselves, with vaccination being the single most effective measure,” he said.

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