DHS now tracking Delta coronavirus variant as ‘variant of concern’

MADISON, Wis. — State health officials are now tracking a rapidly spreading variant of the coronavirus as a “variant of concern,” because of evidence that shows it is more contagious than the more common and familiar coronavirus.

The B.1.617.2 variant, known as the Delta variant, was first reported in India in October 2020. It has since spread and is credited with a recent rise in cases in the U.K.

The strain was previously classified by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services as a variant of interest, but was upgraded following the CDC’s recent re-classification of the Delta variant.

DHS officials said Wednesday they plan to share case counts on the new variant on a weekly basis starting Thursday.

“Wisconsin continues to report an increasing proportion of COVID-19 cases across the state that are variants of concern,” DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said. “We urge Wisconsinites to protect themselves, their families, and their communities by getting vaccinated. The sooner people get vaccinated against COVID-19, the less opportunity for the virus to keep mutating.”

To date, scientists have identified 26 cases of the Delta variant in Wisconsin since April. Scientists use a method called whole genome sequencing that compares the genomes from positive coronavirus tests to locate mutations in the virus. DHS and other lab partners statewide regularly perform the genome sequencing on portions of positive tests.

While much is still unknown about the variant, including the effectiveness of therapeutics and antibody treatments, health officials said vaccines still provide some level of protection against the Delta variant.

“The nature of any virus is to figure out a way to keep on living and to keep on infecting people,” said Dr. William Hartman. “The people that it can mutate in is becoming a smaller pool because we do have half of the country vaccinated, but that still means there are 180 million people in the U.S. that it could still infect.”

Hartman said if you are vaccinated, the good news is that the vaccines have proven to be effective against the Delta variant.

But because the variant is more infectious, it spreads quicker and creates more chances for large outbreaks in unvaccinated populations, including young kids.

“It went from about 6% of cases to greater than 91% of cases in the UK very, very quickly. And even here in the U.S. last week it was around 6% of cases. Now it’s at 10% of cases,” said Hartman.

Officials added that getting more people vaccinated can help prevent the spread, and thus further potentially dangerous mutations, of the coronavirus.

“It will prey on people without the vaccine and so you definitely have to be concerned,” said Hartman.