The COVID-19 Delta variant is in Tarrant County. Do you need to put that mask back on?

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are trending up in North Texas, igniting concerns for the Delta variant and vaccination efforts, officials said.

In the North Texas hospital region, which encompasses Dallas and Tarrant counties, coronavirus hospitalizations make up almost 3% of the region’s total hospital capacity and have been trending up since June.

Under Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, if COVID-19 hospitalizations exceed 15% of capacity for seven consecutive days in a trauma service region, county judges in that region can impose some restrictions but may not reduce business capacity to less than 50%.

In December, coronavirus hospitalizations reached that 15% threshold and rollbacks were made. And while the current number is low, health officials are advocating for safe practices and vaccinations, especially with the Delta variant raging across the globe.

The variant is said to account for more than 51% of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Tarrant County, officials said the Delta variant has been detected. The worry about the variant is that it is more contagious and easier to spread to those who aren’t vaccinated.

The Delta variant is set to become the dominant strain of COVID-19, said Jeffrey SoRelle, assistant instructor in the Department of Pathology at UT Southwestern. It is 50% more transmissible than the Alpha variant, which is 50% more transmissible than the original strain.

And while scientists and researchers have found it is highly contagious, there is little to no data showing if the variant is deadlier, SoRelle said. It’s also unpredictable to say if the Delta variant could spur another coronavirus outbreak like what was seen last summer.

SoRelle did warn that the variant could have devastating effects in areas with low vaccinations.

Tarrant County officials said while they know the variant is here, they don’t know how much the variant accounts for the new cases and hospitalizations. What they do know is that most of the people being hospitalized are not vaccinated, said Vinny Taneja, the county’s public health director, at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting.

Nikhil Bhayani, an infectious disease expert with Texas Health Resources, said there has been a slight uptick in hospitalizations but not at the pace that was seen last summer or the holiday season. Part of this is because of the vaccine. Bhayani said unvaccinated people have a more serious illness.

So with summer in full swing and the variant running loose, what should people be doing?

If you’ve received either the Moderna, Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson vaccine, there is no need to worry as studies have shown the vaccines protect against the Delta variant, said Diana Cervantes, director of the UNT Health Science Center’s epidemiology program.

There is also no guidance for fully vaccinated people to put their masks back on, she said. According to the CDC, fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks.

Unvaccinated people should keep following COVID-19 safety protocols such as wearing a mask and avoiding large crowds, Cervantes said.

“At this point, if you’re not vaccinated, it’s as if we’re back in July of 2020,” she said.

SoRelle said he’s found that less than 1% of fully vaccinated people end up contracting COVID-19.

For unvaccinated people, Tarrant County officials recommend they get the vaccine and if they don’t, they should wear masks when around people they don’t live with.

According to state data, Tarrant County has about 48% of its population age 12 and older fully vaccinated. Cervantes said there is still work to do to get more people inoculated. Statewide, half of the population is fully vaccinated.

“We’ll see what the fall has in store,” Cervantes said. “Hopefully people will prepare, start getting vaccinated.”

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