Health expert warns Delta variant imminent

Downtown Brownsville shoppers walk along Elizabeth Street as some continue to practice wearing their face mask as COVID-19 continues to affect the U.S. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

The Delta COVID-19 variant is coming to Cameron County, and in fact it’s probably already here even if it hasn’t been detected yet.

Cameron County Health Authority Dr. James Castillo speaks during a press conference as Dr. Castillo warns of the threat of another COVID-19 wave this time in the form of COVID-19 Delta variant. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

That’s according to Cameron County Healthy Authority Dr. James Castillo, who said during a Monday county press conference that about 6.5 percent of new virus cases in Texas are Delta, and that that percentage will double every two weeks. The variant first swept India after that country thought it had the virus under control. Now Delta is flourishing in Israel and the United Kingdom, which offers a preview of what’s coming to the United States, he said.

What happens in Europe COVID-wise typically repeats in the United States a month or two later, Castillo said, noting that Delta is three times more contagious than the original version of the virus.

“There’s another wave coming and that wave is the Delta variant,” he said.

It means that for anyone who has not been vaccinated for any reason, now is the time to act, Castillo said. Free Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are now widely available around the county, which eliminates any excuse for not getting one, he said. While the county’s vaccination rate is relatively good compared to much of the rest of the United States — nearly 63 percent of people 12 and older have been vaccinated in Cameron County — that’s still nowhere near the percentage it would take to reach herd immunity and stop the spread of the virus, Castillo said.

While further information is needed about the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccines, the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been shown to be very effective against Delta, he said.

With Delta on the rise and even more contagious variants a possibility, those who still refuse to be vaccinated are potentially exposing themselves to extreme illness or worse, he said.

“The vaccines are extremely effective at preventing death. … They’re extremely effective at keeping you out of the ICU,” Castillo said. “We need to keep that in mind going forward as these variants come through our community.”

Residents in the 18 to 39 age group have a lower vaccination rate, and consequently a higher infection rate, compared to the rest of the county’s population. Manny Vela, president and CEO of Valley Baptist Health System, said a recent statistic illustrates the situation well: Of the 21 COVID-positive patients VBMC had on June 25, only two of them had been vaccinated, and neither of those two were in ICU compared to some of the other patients, he said.

“There’s a direct correlation between the percentage of vaccinated individuals in our communities and the decline in our inpatient population,” Vela said. But the telltale sign for us is when you have 19 out of 21 individuals in the hospital who are not vaccinated. … We want to make sure people understand that vaccinations keep you out of our hospital.”

Castillo said that, due to the easy availability of vaccines, every death over the past few months related to COVID-19 has been preventable, and that it’s also the case with deaths going forward. Even if a vaccine doesn’t protect a person 100 percent from getting infected, it drastically reduces the severity of the infection and may make carriers less contagious, he said.

As for how to prevent variants that current vaccines can’t touch, the key is for the maximum number of people to be vaccinated as quickly as possible, Castillo said.

“The variants come into being when there’s just a whole lot of infection happening, so the more people who are vaccinated the fewer hosts that the virus can infect and have a chance to develop these new mutations that give it an advantage,” he said.

County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. said Monday’s press conference was deemed necessary to highlight the importance of vaccination in minimizing the impact of new variants, and because of a slight increase in COVID-19 cases lately, even though overall numbers are relatively low. As of June 25, the county had recorded 42,119 cases of the virus since the outbreak began last year, 39,648 recoveries and 1,685 deaths, he said.