Last Friday, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez confirmed four new cases of the delta variant more than two weeks after the first case in the Rio Grande Valley and days after Starr County confirmed two cases of the variant as well.

Despite the recent surge in cases, Starr County Judge Eloy Vera believes Gov. Greg Abbott won’t be mandating face masks anytime soon.

The delta variant has grown from 1% of cases in May to 80% now, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As the situation continues to grow more dire, vaccine hesitancy continues to concern as the delta variant spreads within the community.

“This virus is significantly more infectious than the previous strain and unvaccinated individuals are at the highest risk.” Judge Cortez said in a news release this week.

Though the symptoms remain largely the same, such as flu-like respiratory and digestive problems, fatigue, loss of smell or taste, the President and CEO of DHR Health Institute for Research and Development, Dr. Sohail Rao, explained the mutations the disease has gone through and why it makes the delta variant more dangerous.

“There are about four mutations out of the 17 that are important,” Rao said. “The rest of them are actually what are called common mutations, which have little or no impact on the infectivity of this particular virus.”

The first important mutation is the one that increases the virus’ ability to be transmitted from one individual to another, which has been said to have increased from five- to tenfold.

This increase in transmissibility has not only shortened the amount of time it takes for the disease to jump between individuals to only seconds or minutes, but also increases the distance required to avoid contracting the virus.

The social distance rule has always been said to be a minimum of 6 feet between people, but due to the mutation the rule might have to be altered as the delta variant can be transmitted closer or further away, according to Rao.

The second important mutation is the virus’s increased infectivity rate.

A common misconception is that the virus is very active, but that’s not the case.

The virus uses its spike protein’s receptor-binding domain to gain entry into the cell by interacting with the cell’s angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 receptor, also known as the ACE2.

Once the virus binds itself to the ACE2 receptor it becomes active and undergoes what is known as a conformational change and enters the cell.

“This is why people who have hypertension, type 2 diabetes and others are at higher risk because the receptors to which the virus binds are increased in these diseased states,” Dr. Rao said. “Therefore, they are more of a target for the virus to bind with.”

The third important mutation is the virus’ ability to decrease the recognition capabilities of the human immune system and basically becomes a stealth virus.

This also means that the antibodies created by a person’s immune system will sometimes not recognize the virus as well.

That’s the reason why face masks are still recommended even for those who are vaccinated, but it reduces chances of hospitalization if infected and helps stop the spread of disease because even vaccinated individuals can still be harboring the virus.

The fourth mutation ties back to the second as it actually “enhances” the conformational change the virus undergoes when it binds to the ACE2 receptor by accelerating the process.

The delta variant is more contagious, more transmissible and causes more severe illness especially among those who are unvaccinated, according to Dr. Usman Khan, medical director at the McAllen Medical Emergency Room.

“To give you a perspective, let’s say if I see 10 patients at a given time, out of those, at least six of them are going to be of COVID nature and the type of strain we’re seeing right now is the delta variant,” Khan said.

Talks of additional booster shots have come up in conversation with medical experts.

Rao and his team have actually filed an Investigational New Drug request to the Food and Drug Administration in order to give booster shots to healthcare workers who are at high risk.

He hopes to see progress in his clinical environment.

Booster shots provide an additional glimmer of hope in stopping the virus, but if individuals refuse to receive the vaccine, a booster shot will almost certainly be out of the question.

“A vaccinated individual will actually get the virus, but the viral load isn’t going to be high enough that they will become a source of rapid spread,” Rao said. “An unvaccinated individual has no antibodies … they are also by default those who take less precaution because they are anti-vaxxers, they are anti-mask, they are anti-social distancing, they are anti-washing hands, they are anti-everything.

“So, combine all those things together and you have essentially a time bomb ticking.”

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