How to stay safe as the delta variant drives increase in Colorado’s COVID cases

As the delta variant spreads rapidly across the state and nation, public health experts have issued new — though not unfamiliar — guidance for people vaccinated against the coronavirus, just as they were trying to return to pre-pandemic life.

Scientists and public health experts stress that the COVID-19 vaccines are effective and doing their job by preventing severe disease that can cause hospitalizations and deaths.

But ever-changing public health guidance can make it confusing for people who’ve been vaccianted to know how much they should change their lives.

The Denver Post spoke to two experts about what Coloradans need to know about the delta variant.

What’s different about the delta variant?

The delta variant of the coronavirus was first discovered in India and is considered a “variant of concern” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a classification the agency gives to strains that are more transmissible, cause more severe disease or reduce the effectiveness of treatments or vaccines.

In Colorado, the variant was first discovered in Mesa County in May and has since become the predominant strain in the state.

Scientists and public health officials caution that they are still learning about the delta variant, but so far it appears it is not only more contagious than previous strains, but it also spreads quickly. This is leading to the resurgence of COVID-19 across the U.S., said May Chu, professor of clinical epidemiology for the Colorado School of Public Health.

“Now we have a summer of concern because that variant is sticking its nose at you,” she said, adding, “This delta variant’s emergence has made a mess of things.’

The delta variant is estimated to have an R0 — called an r-naught and used by scientists to rate the transmissibility of a virus — of about 7 (and maybe even higher), she said.

That means that every infected person can transmit the virus to seven others, who each will infect seven more people. By comparison, the original version of the virus has an R0 of 2, Chu said.

A copy of a CDC report obtained by The Washington Post compared the delta variant to other viruses, saying that it is more transmissible than those that cause Ebola or the common cold.

New research from the CDC suggests that vaccinated people infected with the variant have viral loads that are similar to those that have not received any COVID-19 shot, suggesting that they may be able to spread the virus — something that researchers did not believe was the case with other versions.

It is this research that has spurred the CDC to advise vaccinated people — who just three months ago were told they could go without masks — to put face coverings back on again in areas of the country with elevated virus transmission.

Colorado officials emphasized during a news briefing Monday that breakthrough infections among vaccinated people are uncommon and most of the transmission occurring in the state, which is once again seeing a rise in cases and hospitalizations, is occurring among people who have not been vaccinated.

“We’re getting real-time information about an infectious disease that is being relayed into public policy and people are making the best decisions at the time,” said Alex Huffman, an aerosol scientist at the University of Denver. “The implications of what the data means have so much importance for daily life at this moment we are continuing to adapt.”

Huffman and Chu said the risk of certain activities depends on multiple variables, such as whether an activity is inside vs. outside; if everyone is vaccinated; personal risk tolerance; and whether a county has high transmission and hospitalizations that increase the chances of exposure.

When should you wear a mask if you’re vaccinated?

For the most part, outdoor settings carry a lower risk of getting infected. If a person is hiking and only occasionally interacts with people they don’t know, then they don’t need to wear a mask, Huffman said.

But if a person is outside and in close proximity to a large group of people and doesn’t know whether everyone is vaccinated — such as at a large cookout in a small space or a festival — then a mask is a good idea, he said.

A person doesn’t have to worry about a face covering when they are in small gatherings and everyone is immunized. But that changes when they spend a significant amount of time indoors with people whose vaccination status they are unsure of, Huffman said.

While more masking is being encouraged, it’s important to know it’s just one tool to protect against the spread of the virus. Getting vaccinated remains the best way to protect oneself and others, Huffman said.

In Colorado, unvaccinated people are required to wear masks in high-risk settings, such as in jails and at hospitals. Anyone attending court, conducting business in court buildings or going into probation offices is required to wear masks in Denver.

The state health department is also recommending — but not mandating — masks be worn by all students and school staff this upcoming year. Some districts, including Denver Public Schools, have opted to require all students and staff to wear masks.

“What we need to say is masking is here to stay,” Chu said, adding that there will be periods of low transmission of the virus that will make it safer for vaccinated people to remove their face coverings.

Dining at restaurants

Restaurants have been considered high-risk areas throughout the pandemic because of how the virus spreads and the fact that they are indoor spaces where people can spend long periods without masks mixing with large groups of people.

Restaurant workers should wear masks because they are more likely to interact with large groups of people with varying vaccination statuses who aren’t wearing masks, Huffman said.

Both he and Chu recommended dining outdoors, on uncovered and uncrowded patios, as lower-risk options.

“It’s getting more and more intense in the areas where we are and we have to be a little more careful,” Chu said.

It’s still possible to get infected with the virus while outdoors, but it is “dramatically” safer than inside, Huffman said.

“In Colorado, we’ve still got a couple months of really nice outdoor weather,” Huffman said. “Let’s utilize it as much as possible to help as a tool to keep the virus at bay.”

Is it safe to travel?

Both Huffman and Chu cautioned that air travel is becoming more risky with the delta variant.

If a vaccinated person flies, they should wear an N95 mask, which can fit tighter on their face, and leave it on the entire flight, Huffman said.

“If you’re not vaccinated, don’t get on a plane,” he said.

Ground transportation, such as an Uber or light rail, is not always well-ventilated, so Huffman recommends that vaccinated people still wear masks in those settings (federally, masks are required on public transportation). If a person is in an Uber or Lyft, they can open a window by an inch to improve the ventilation, he said.

“Of course your own car is better,” Huffman said.

When it comes to lodging on a trip, it’s safer to stay in a standalone building, such as a rental home, where there is no shared air, Huffman said.

If a person needs to stay in a hotel, he recommends getting a room with a door that opens to the outside. Portable air filters can also help and Huffman said one option make your own air cleaner.

“The point is the things we need to do are not that hard,” he said. “Wear masks. Avoid close contact.”

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