MUSC testing shows delta variant dominates as doctors urge vaccination

August 05, 2021
Bar graph showing the delta variant's rise from June to July.
In a very short time, the delta variant has taken over. Graph courtesy of MUSC Molecular Pathology Lab

The delta variant, which first showed up in testing at the Medical University of South Carolina in mid-June, now accounts for more than 92% of all cases there. 

“Delta is much more transmissible than other variants in South Carolina,” said Julie Hirschhorn, Ph.D. She directs the Molecular Pathology Laboratory at MUSC.

Delta’s dominance comes as COVID hospitalizations rise in South Carolina. There are more than 30 COVID patients hospitalized at MUSC Health in Charleston and more than 70 throughout the MUSC Health system statewide, not including the new hospitals that just became part of MUSC Health this week.

“I've had so many calls about ‘Could we have delta here?’ ‘What do we do if we have delta?’ ‘Are we still safe if we have delta?’ I think there's a lot of real anxiety,” Hirschhorn said.

She encouraged people to get vaccinated. “Vaccination remains protective. It doesn’t mean you can’t get COVID, but you’re much less likely to end up in the hospital or die.”

Scott Curry, M.D. 
Dr. Scott Curry

Research by infectious disease specialist Scott Curry, M.D., bears that out. He’s tracking breakthrough infections among MUSC students and faculty and MUSC Health care team members. He said that of the more than 14,000 people he’s following, there have been about 110 breakthrough infections.

“Last I looked, there were two people hospitalized out of that 110. So for the end point of hospitalization, the vaccines are still like 96% effective, and we haven’t seen anybody die.” 

He is, unfortunately, seeing unvaccinated patients die. “A young man without any medical problems died the other day. Before he got COVID, he was totally healthy, nothing wrong with him. I’m just crushed every time I see that, because everyone who is dying from COVID is unvaccinated.”

Curry worries about the start of the school year. “Kids under 12 aren’t eligible to get vaccinated yet, masks aren’t required in South Carolina schools and delta spreads like crazy.”

“Kids getting sick and bringing it to adults is going to be a recurrent theme, even among vaccinated parents, because we've seen the vaccines aren't 100% effective. That's going to create a constant churn of breakthrough infections that spread to new people that haven't got their vaccines,” he said.

Medical technologist Kristen Maurer, left, and Dr. Julie Hirschhorn prepare samples for sequencing. 
Dr. Julie Hirschhorn, right, prepares COVID samples for sequencing. Photo by Sarah Pack

Hirschhorn said there is data to suggest that people with the delta variant carry higher viral loads than those with other variants. That means they’re more likely to pass it on to other people. “The higher viral load, I think, makes the kid population more susceptible. Before, when we were dealing with COVID, the viral loads in the kids tended to be a little bit lower. I think that was part of why people weren't as concerned about kids transmitting COVID. But now with higher viral loads, it's a free for all.”

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control has recommended that everyone in schools wear masks if possible, stay three feet apart and contact trace when there’s an infection. Masks are required on school buses.

Both Hirschhorn and Curry, assistant professors in MUSC’s College of Medicine, said COVID testing is essential as fast-spreading delta circulates. “People think, ‘I’ve had a vaccine. This can’t be COVID.’ And they’ll wait for days before they say, ‘OK, fine. I’m going to get a COVID test.’ And they’re positive,” Curry said.

“The most common symptoms are a runny nose and a headache. Only about 40% of people with symptoms have a fever. Most people think it’s a cold or allergies. They need to get tested to keep from spreading COVID."

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