Lakeland Regional Health’s Dr. Haight Talks About the Latest Threat
by TERESA SCHIFFER
With new cases of COVID-19 rising throughout Florida, if you have been hesitant to get vaccinated, this could be a good time to commit to that. New cases have spiked in the past month from about 23,000 new cases per week throughout Florida in the beginning of July to over 134,000 new cases by the end of that month, according to the Florida Department of Health. What’s fueling this surge? The primary factor is the Delta variant of the virus now circulating.
The National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease has reported to the CDC that the Delta variant of COVID-19 has been determined to be nearly twice as contagious as previous variants of the disease and is suspected to cause more severe illness among unvaccinated populations. This is the form of coronavirus currently most common in the United States. Although fully vaccinated individuals can still contract and spread this variant, they seem to be infectious for a shorter period of time than unvaccinated people.
Dr. Daniel Haight is a professor of Infectious Diseases at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine. For almost nine years, he has also served as the Vice President of Community Health at Lakeland Regional Health, as well as the Medical Director of Infectious Prevention there. He has been working with COVID-19 patients at both Lakeland Regional Health and Tampa General Hospital.
Haight attributes the current rise in diagnosed cases to the area’s low vaccination rates.
“The most recent surge of infections has been due to a still very large number of unvaccinated, vulnerable people getting exposed to the virus,” he explains. “That, coupled with the natural process a virus goes through to produce variants as it continues infecting people, these variants can become more contagious or cause more serious illnesses. We’re seeing that now with the Delta variant being more contagious.”
Any time a virus infects a person, it reproduces within that individual. It could create trillions of copies of itself, but not all of those copies will be identical. Globally, approximately 4,000 different variants of COVID-19 have already been identified. Some variants are so close to the original form of the virus that there is no discernible difference in symptoms or treatment efficacy, while others differ so wildly as to be ineffective at infecting further individuals. Then there are those variants which are capable of infecting more people and causing more severe illness, being more difficult to detect through testing, and potentially resisting currently available treatments.
“Often, when a variant becomes more contagious, it tends to become the more common virus spread in that geographical area,” Haight explains. “So it’s not surprising that now the majority of cases are the Delta variant, because it is the more contagious one.”
He goes on to say what steps will help slow the proliferation of dangerous variants of the virus: “If we can stop the spread, or at least slow down the spread, we can slow down the development of these variants. The more people who get infected, the higher the chance that more variants will develop. That’s why protective measures, such as staying home if you’re sick, being very careful if you’ve been exposed, and wearing a good quality mask in addition to vaccinations helps to reduce the spread of the virus, and that helps reduce the production of these variants. “
Though the Delta variant can cause more serious symptoms than previous iterations of the virus, medical treatments have continued to evolve alongside the disease, mitigating the overall impact of this dangerous new strain. With all vaccines, not all infections can be prevented. A heavily exposed vaccinated person might see the virus “break” the protection of the vaccine. Though not the best term to describe it, a “breakthrough” infection occurs when a vaccinated person becomes infected with the coronavirus. This does not mean the inoculation was ineffective, though, as vaccinated individuals are experiencing not only significantly lower rates of infection but also extremely low rates of hospitalization or death due to COVID-19.
“The vaccines have been hugely effective,” Haight says. “What we have seen in the hospital is that 90 to 95 percent of those people getting so sick from their COVID infection are unvaccinated, and almost 99 percent of the people dying of COVID are unvaccinated. What we’re seeing is that in any community that has a large number of unvaccinated people, the disease is spreading very easily among that group, but unfortunately, it is spreading to the extent that vaccinated people are getting exposed to the sick, unvaccinated people, and some of the vaccinated people are catching COVID. The good news is that the vaccinated people who are catching COVID because of this massive outbreak are having milder cases, and many of them are not requiring hospitalization.”
As of this writing, there are currently more than 390 patients at Lakeland Regional Health suffering from COVID-19, with 51 of those people in the Intensive Care Unit and 40 of those on a ventilator.