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Austin area health leaders urge residents to get vaccinated amid concerns of Delta variant

Heather Osbourne
Austin American-Statesman

As coronavirus hospitalizations and cases continue to decrease in Austin and Travis County, the area's top health chief says she's growing increasingly concerned about one variant of the disease and the threat it poses for unvaccinated residents. 

Dr. Desmar Walkes, who began her role as Austin-Travis County health authority earlier this month, said Austin and Travis County health leaders are closely monitoring the highly contagious Delta coronavirus variant, also known as B.1.617.2, making its way across the nation. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rachelle Walensky warned, along with President Joe Biden, earlier in June that the Delta variant is likely to soon become the dominant strain of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Travis County COVID-19 vaccine tracker: 53% of people fully vaccinated

Walkes last week said while the strain has yet to be confirmed in Austin and Travis County, the Delta variant will put the area's unvaccinated residents most at risk. Seven cases already have been confirmed in Dallas County, according to the county's website last week. 

While residents who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can still be infected by Delta, they are likely to have a milder case and not experience severe illness leading to hospitalizations, according to Walkes. 

Unvaccinated residents, even if they were previously infected with COVID-19, though, will likely be at greater risk than ever before of contracting the coronavirus if exposed to the Delta variant.

"The Delta variant in and of itself is more of a concern because of the propensity for it to be transmitted in a much more aggressive or rapid fashion," Walkes said.

"There are a lot of people in our community who feel that they are somewhat bulletproof because they've had COVID-19," she said, adding that it's a false sense of security because the Delta variant, as of last week, represented 10% of variants found in the U.S. and could be contracted by those who previously had the disease. 

The Delta variant increased slowly from late February through late May, but its rise last week was concerning because the rapid increase could be an indicator of a long-term trend, according to a Johns Hopkins Weekly Situation report. 

Last week, new data about the Delta variant showed it rose again to account for more than 20% of new coronavirus infections in the nation in the last two weeks, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, in a USA TODAY report. 

The Delta variant makes up half of new infections in the regions that include Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming, the report said. 

More:Delta variant accounts for 20% of new infections in US; world case rates fall: Latest COVID-19 updates

So far, 266 people have been confirmed to have one of five additional variants, not including Delta, of the coronavirus in Austin and Travis County, according to Walkes on Tuesday. 

The most common variant in the Austin area is the B.1.1.7, or Alpha, which originated in the United Kingdom, and is responsible for 206 of the total known variant infections locally, according to Walkes.

The Alpha variant still remains the most prominent variant in the nation as of Wednesday, but its prevalence fell slightly as the Delta variant rose last week, according to the Johns Hopkins report. 

"So, our push to get as many people as we can vaccinated in our community is of the utmost importance at this juncture," Walkes said while talking about the variants, adding that the vaccines currently on the market are effective in protecting people from those five variants.

"Fortunately, the vaccines that we are currently using are effective in reducing hospitalizations and severe disease caused by the Delta variant," she continued. 

More:First cases of Delta coronavirus variant found in Williamson County, officials say

Austin and Travis County health leaders are still pushing to soon reach herd immunity, which occurs when enough people in a community are protected from getting a disease because they’ve been vaccinated or, in some cases, already had the disease. 

Herd immunity is important because it even protects those who cannot be vaccinated, such as children younger than 12, Austin Public Health has said.

Austin Public Health officials say herd immunity will be reached locally when the seven-day moving average for new hospitalizations drops and stays below five, or when 70% to 90% of Austin and Travis County residents are fully vaccinated. 

The new hospitalizations average was eight last week, according to Austin's coronavirus dashboard.  A total of 67 people were hospitalized with illnesses linked to COVID-19. Of those, 26 were in the ICU and 15 were on ventilators.

According to the most recent data collected last week, Austin and Travis County residents older than 50 made up the majority of the hospitalizations in the area.

When it comes to vaccinations, 68.55% of Austin and Travis County residents who are 12 years and older have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, according to Texas Department of State Health Services data. Of those, 58.48% are fully vaccinated, the state data said 

Austin Public Health Director Adrienne Sturrup said the agency continues to reach out to educate those with vaccine hesitancy in hopes of reaching herd immunity and avoiding further mutations of the coronavirus that put the community at risk. 

Sturrup added that Austin Public Health is still focused on reaching out to communities of color to provide pop-up vaccination clinics and further education about the efficacy and low risk of the vaccine. 

So far, 748,422 people have received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine in Austin and Travis County. Of those, 27,384 people were Black, 153,454 were Hispanic and 59,403 were Asian. While 343,225 of those were white, an additional 164,956 were listed as unknown or other. 

"When we talk about our strategy for communities of color, it's going to take an intentional health equity approach," Sturrup said. "The opportunity to be present in spaces where communities of color feel comfortable, to either offer the vaccine or to give information about the vaccine, is important."

USA TODAY contributed to this report. 

"Our push to get as many people as we can vaccinated in our community is of the utmost importance at this juncture," warns Dr. Desmar Walkes, the new Austin-Travis County health authority.