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'We expect that number to increase': Delta variant spreading rapidly

The Delta variant is responsible for roughly 25% of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to the CDC.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The CDC reports that 25% of the COVID-19 cases in the United States are the more contagious and severe Delta variant. Cases are up 10% nationwide as the “hypertransmissable” variant spreads.  

Health officials in the Carolinas are concerned there could be a rise in hospitalizations here too.

“We have had a couple of outbreaks recently. We had one in a shelter and we're going to do some sequencing with that but it takes a little while for that to get done, but I’ll be real surprised if we're not seeing some delta there because of the spread we saw,” Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris said.

Getting a grasp on just how prevalent Delta is can be challenging. Positive COVID-19 tests must be genetically sequenced to determine the variant. But it's a limited resource. For example, South Carolina DHEC only sequenced 95 tests in June.

“Looking back the last four weeks, about 78% of the samples sequenced at public health laboratory are a known variant of concern,” Dr. Johnathan Knoche with SCDHEC said.

Knoche added about 5% of those were Delta, 10 confirmed cases so far. But there are other labs sequencing tests and not every test qualifies, so health experts say we should assume those numbers are much higher.

“I would think by the end of July and into August, more than 50% of the cases in North Carolina will likely be Delta variant,” Dr. David Priest with Novant Health said. “Which I think then begs the question if you haven't been vaccinated, and we have safe effective vaccines, now is certainly the time to do it."

All three vaccines seem to stand up against Delta, the problem is that much of the population is still not vaccinated.

“There’s any number of reasons for wanting the majority of our population to be vaccinated,” Harris said. “One is so they protect themselves and protect the rest of their community from transmission, but also because it helps us prevent the virus from mutating."

As of this week, 66% of American adults have at least 1 dose of the vaccine, just shy of the 70% goal by July 4 set by President Biden. The Delta variant adds the potential to backslide in areas where more people are putting off getting the shots.

It's already happening in parts of Missouri, where the vaccination rate isn't much lower than that of the Carolinas.

“We are seeing almost this tale of two pandemics in the United States. Areas of the country that are highly vaccinated are going to have fewer cases, fewer hospitalizations, and fewer deaths per capita than those that aren't,” Dr. Priest said. “And I’m concerned that North Carolina is in that second category where the risk is going to remain high unless we get more people vaccinated."

Based on the current vaccination rate of adults in the Tar Heel state, the Washington Post projects 70% of adults will be vaccinated by late February 2022, only ahead of 7 other states.

A lot could change by then, but health leaders say some can be controlled by the vaccines.

“We hate for people to change their minds because someone close to them has died or gotten COVID or they were really ill with it and they have to reconsider at that point, we hope that people won't wait that long but we know that will happen in some cases," Priest said. "So, we just run the risk of having the same things that happened in Missouri happen in our state and our community and to the folks that we love and care for."

For people who are not vaccinated, Delta is a threat, especially this holiday weekend when people will gather.

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RELATED: I was vaccinated then I got COVID-19. Now what?

According to the latest information from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, 53% of adults in the state are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The state reported 296 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, and 396 people are hospitalized statewide due to the virus.

RELATED: Will one dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine protect me?

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