A beast is traveling west on Interstate 44 and it could be headed to Southwest Oklahoma.

The highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, the same variant blamed for an influx of cases in Springfield, Mo., is making its way, albeit slowly, across the state.

The Delta variant of COVID-19, also known as B.1.617.2, was identified in India in late 2020 and has subsequently been detected in approximately 60 countries according to a CDC report. The B.1.617.2 variant has a potentially higher rate of transmission than other variants.

“We do have the Delta variant kind of moving into the area,” said Oklahoma State Department of Health Epidemiologist for Region 5, Melanie Curry. “It is following along I-44, coming down from Kansas and Arkansas and then into Tulsa, Oklahoma City and then, of course, we are at the very tail end of I-44, so we do expect that it will come to Southwestern Oklahoma and we’ll do anything that in everything we can to mitigate it when it does.”

It may already be here though, according to officials at Comanche County Memorial Hospital.

“The Delta variant is likely already circulating in our community, and likely has been for some time now,” said Meagan Garibay, an infection preventionist at Comanche County Regional Hospital. “Oklahoma State Department of Health performs variant testing on random specimens received in order to watch the current spread in our state.”

Testing is key to containing the virus, said Curry. However, Oklahoma has seen a steady decline in testing since February. The lack of testing and a delay in identifying the Delta variant in positive cases make it all but impossible to determine if the variant has reached Lawton and surrounding areas yet.

“If people are feeling at all sick, even if you think it’s just allergies or a cold, we really, really encourage people to get tested right now.”

The Delta variant is 50 percent more transmissible than other strains of the virus and causes more severe illness in all segments of the population, said Curry. However, this variant is particularly affecting the 12- to 35-year-old population, a group that tends to be less vaccinated than others. With Oklahoma’s lower-than-average vaccination rate, this could have severe consequences.

“I would really strongly encourage people to go out and get vaccinated just because the Delta variant has been seen to be more infectious and makes people sicker,” Curry said. “We’re seeing a lot of those cases in unvaccinated individuals and a lot of hospitalizations as well.”

The Delta variant reared its head at an Oklahoma gymnastics facility in May. The strain infected dozens of teens and landed one unvaccinated person in the ICU, according to a CDC report.

The outbreak infected 47 out of 194 people in just over two weeks, including gymnasts, staff members and household contacts — 40 of them unvaccinated, federal health officials stated in the report.

The outbreak, which occurred between April 15 and May 3, suggests the Delta variant has higher attack rates than other variants — meaning it can infect more people after exposure.

The CDC report identified several potential risk factors in the gymnastics facility outbreak, including nonadherence to recommended quarantine and testing guidance; delayed recognition of infection because of mild symptoms or attribution of symptoms to other causes; not using masks among active participants, coupled with increased respiration during active sport participation — the facility had a policy that all persons not actively participating would wear masks, but this policy was not always observed; poor facility ventilation; staff members training multiple cohorts; low COVID-19 vaccination coverage among participants — partly related to age eligibility; inadequate cleaning of high-touch surfaces between participant use; and overlapping cohort practice times, facilitating transmission between cohorts.

The facility attempted to mitigate transmission by temporarily excluding cohorts with cases and requiring a negative test or 10-day quarantine before return, according to the CDC report. Other facility mitigation measures were restricting locker room access, physical distancing in personal belonging storage area, and physical distancing when cohorts moved between practice locations.

About 99.5 percent of coronavirus deaths over the last six months have occurred in unvaccinated people, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said on July 1 during a White House COVID-19 briefing.

“The Delta variant is predicted to be the second most prevalent variant in the United States, and I expect that in the coming weeks it will eclipse the alpha variant,” Walensky said. “An estimated 25 percent of all reported SARS-CoV-2 sequences nationwide are the Delta variant and in some regions of the country, nearly one in two sequences is the Delta variant.”

While many symptoms between the original virus and the Delta variant, such as headaches, sore throat, runny nose and fever are similar, symptoms like cough and loss of taste and smell are not as common anymore, Curry said.

Another difference said Curry, is how the virus affects people. With the earlier strain, people who started with mild to no symptoms generally stayed that way throughout the course of the virus. However with the Delta variant Curry said she is seeing people start with mild symptoms but within a few days it “seems to really slam into people and they will get severely sick quickly.”

While the vaccines will not fully protect people from the virus, they will keep people out of the hospital, said Curry.

“With those vaccines, what we’re seeing is that people who are vaccinated if they do happen to catch the Delta variant, if there does happen to be a vaccine breakthrough those people don’t get nearly as sick,” Curry said. “So the people that are ending up in the hospital and the people who are dying, predominantly from the Delta variant, are unvaccinated individuals. That’s why we are so concerned with trying to make sure that everybody has access to this vaccine and informing people and getting them on the right track.”

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccine efficacy rate is about 95 percent with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine rate about 88 percent efficacy, said Curry.

Officials from Southwestern Medical Center, Comanche County Memorial and DRH Health have all said they are ready for whatever this new variant may bring. All three agree vaccination is the best way to avoid a hospital stay, as well.

“It is unfortunately impossible to predict when or where surges will occur; all age groups are susceptible to all variants of COVID, and the likelihood of a surge depends on public health mitigation measures followed, and the vaccination status of a population,” Garibay said. “As mitigation measures are abandoned or not followed, and vaccination numbers stall, the risk of a surge increases. While we hope one does not occur, we will be ready in the event it does.”

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