‘It might be all of what we see’: Contagious Delta variant spread in Wisconsin a concern for unvaccinated

MADISON, Wis. – The highly contagious Delta coronavirus variant could be the most prominent strain in Wisconsin communities by the end of the summer.

That’s according to UW-Madison Pathology Professor Dave O’Connor, whose lab does genome sequencing on coronavirus samples.

He pointed to how quickly the Delta variant, first discovered in India, spread in the UK.

“We’re at the very beginning of that right here in Wisconsin and in Dane County,” adding that about 5 to 10% of all the viruses they’ve been sequencing in the state over the last month have been the Delta variant. “We can expect by August it’s going to be the majority, and it might be almost all of what we see.”

“It is worrisome,” said Mo Kharbat, regional vice president of pharmacy services at SSM Health Wisconsin. “It can spread more quickly. It can cause more severe disease.”

That worry is part of the reason SSM Health announced Monday that it would require all of its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by late September.

Kharbat said he’s concerned the virus could spread quickly in unvaccinated pockets of the country.

“That’s exactly what we’re seeing today,” he said. “In areas in the United States where vaccinations are low, that’s where we’re seeing outbreaks.”

“If you’re not vaccinated, it’s something you really have to worry about,” O’Connor said. “If you’ve been vaccinated, the good news is you can more or less live your life normally. Though, I think the big asterisk we need to put on that is that not everyone has the same luxury. I’m fortunate in that I’m healthy and I’m vaccinated, but my dad, who is profoundly immunosuppressed, has been vaccinated, but his vaccine might not work as well.”

Overall, Kharbat said the vaccines approved in the U.S. have proven effective against variants so far.

“What we know today, based on real life experiences, is that the vaccines do protect against the Delta variant,” Kharbat said. “There’s enough genetic mix-up between the Delta variant and other variants to allow the vaccine to help us build immunity.”

Health experts are still concerned the coronavirus may mutate further.

“We know we have good immunity up to this point, but as the COVID virus continues to evolve, what is it going to evolve into, and will the antibodies generated by the vaccines still be effective against them?” said UW Health’s Bill Hartman. “We just don’t know the answer to that.”

Hartman led the UW Health AstraZeneca vaccine trial. In other countries, AstraZeneca started a trial Monday for a booster shot aimed particularly against the Beta variant.

“Progress against COVID doesn’t equal victory against COVID,” Hartman said. “Until we’ve tamped down the virus in every country of the world, there’s always a chance it could spread again.”

Taking a global perspective matters when looking at the future of variants here at home.

“As long as the countries in the world where there’s lots of cases continue to have lots of cases, you have that fuel for new variants that are more dangerous to continue to emerge,” O’Connor said.

“That’s what we’re trying to prevent by reaching herd immunity as soon as possible,” Kharbat said.

SSM Health is expanding vaccine availability, Kharbat said, now offering appointments and walk-in shots at all primary care clinics to patients and members of the public.