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Guest Column: Delta variant is here, immediate protection necessary

By Ethel Branch
The Delta variant has very much arrived at Navajo Nation and appears to be driving a recent surge in new cases. Based on current Navajo Nation case data posted on the Navajo Department of Health’s COVID data dashboard, Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund’s staff has observed multiple doublings in weekly new cases.
Based on current case data posted on the Navajo Department of Health’s COVID-19 data dashboard, Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund’s staff has observed multiple doublings in weekly new cases.

Submitted | Mark Peterman
Ethel Branch

For quite some time, the aggressive rollout of vaccines on Navajo drove our new case numbers down, even as low as 20 new cases in the fourth week of June.

But in early July, our weekly new cases more than doubled from 33 new cases to almost 70. In late July our new cases skyrocketed to almost 200. In mid-August, new cases again more than doubled to 418.
Our numbers haven’t been this high since February, when we were recovering from the intractable winter wave of COVID-19. Even a year ago, prior to having access to the vaccine, our numbers were not this bad. The monthly new cases for August 2021 are about 20% higher than they were in August 2020.
The recent exponential growth of new cases on the Nation is likely due to the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant in our communities. Delta is highly, highly transmissible.
The CDC refers to Delta as being as contagious as the common cold or flu. It has over 1,000 times the viral load of the original strain of COVID-19. This means there is more of the virus in the air exhaled by someone infected by the virus, which makes Delta more easily transmissible.
Delta is also affecting unvaccinated populations more significantly, like children and people under 50.
Unfortunately, Delta has reduced the effectiveness of vaccines from about 91% to 66%. Thus it is vital that the fully vaccinated access the vaccine booster when it is made available in order to again enjoy high efficacy against infection.
The booster is already accessible to those with suppressed immunity, and will likely be made more widely available in Navajo facilities in late September.
Delta is also causing breakthrough infections of fully vaccinated people at a significant rate. These infections often are present as milder cold or flu-like symptoms or in an asymptomatic manner.
Vaccinated people can be carrying and transmitting Delta without even knowing it.
As the Nation moves toward its Delta peak, the situation is becoming quite serious. Our available hospital beds are filling and regional hospitals are not surging like they did last winter to accommodate our most serious cases (likely to be among the unvaccinated).
We’re hearing reports that local hospitals are seeing an alarming amount of breakthrough infections, and “severe breakthrough infections,” in the fully vaccinated due to Delta.
Delta cases are also rising among children, and some of those cases are quite serious.
Nonetheless, the vaccine continues to work well against severe infection. Nationally, 97% of patients hospitalized with Delta are unvaccinated, and the unvaccinated are two times more likely to become hospitalized.
Almost all deaths attributable to Delta (99%) are among the unvaccinated. Getting vaccinated can save your life.
The vaccine only boosts natural immunity, so the disproportionate level of underlying conditions on Navajo – such as cancer, diabetes and obesity – again makes us disproportionately vulnerable to adverse outcomes from Delta.
Because of these factors, we can expect to see disproportionately more breakthrough infections among our fully vaccinated Navajo people due to Delta, and more severe symptoms and adverse outcomes due to Delta on Navajo compared with the general U.S. population.
We can continue to protect ourselves by fully vaccinating and accessing the booster when it becomes available.
Meanwhile, we should continue employing precautions like staying home, social distancing, frequently washing or sanitizing hands, and wearing KN95s or double-masks with close-fitting cloth masks layered over 3-ply masks. Multi-layered and close-fitting masks are essential to preventing infiltration from Delta’s higher viral load.
We should continue to take strong measures to protect those in our community who cannot access the vaccine: our babies and young children.
Families should strongly consider keeping their unvaccinated children home and on virtual learning platforms for the month of September while Delta surges.
Families should create a protective bubble around unvaccinated children when taking them into social situations by surrounding them with vaccinated family members. Everyone of course should be wearing KN95s or double masks.
This bubble shelters children by physically enforcing social distancing.
Based on current data, it’s likely that weekly new case numbers will continue to double until the Nation hits its peak, which could be at the end of September. Still, that is many weeks away.
In order to mitigate community spread and prevent additional loss of life in our communities, the Relief Fund is rolling out a Delta Response Program.
This program will provide food, water, and PPE to families with a confirmed case who are isolating, and families exposed to a confirmed case of COVID who are quarantining while they await test results.
Families can request assistance by calling our hotline at 833-956-1554 or making an online request via our website.
We are hoping to have the cost of this program reimbursed from ARPA funding because we had to pull this funding from budgeted items like the rollout of additional community centers intended to stimulate post-COVID economic rebuilding and make our communities pandemic proof for the long term.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 remains a threat to our communities, and will continue to do so until we achieve herd immunity on Navajo Nation and in our surrounding jurisdictions.
Ethel Branch is interim executive director of the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund.

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