Since it was first identified in India in December 2020, the Delta variant has spread to more than one hundred thirty countries. Having already wreaked havoc elsewhere, including India and the United Kingdom, it has quickly become the dominant strain of the virus in the United States. Delta’s rise coincided with a lull in vaccinations, the lifting of mask mandates and social-distancing restrictions, and a long-awaited return to pre-pandemic socializing and travel. Almost a year and a half into the pandemic, the country has made great strides in testing for, vaccinating against, and treating COVID-19. But the missteps and confusion surrounding the “fourth surge” are a reminder that, in a time of renewed uncertainty about the future of the pandemic, U.S. health and government officials need a coherent and coordinated response—one that incorporates effective outreach to those who still aren’t vaccinated and a clear path forward for those who are.
The Delta variant appears to be about twice as contagious as the original strain of the virus. On July 27, amid rising Covid case numbers and hospitalizations, the CDC updated its guidelines on mask-wearing, recommending that people in high-transmission areas wear a mask in public indoor spaces, even if they’re fully vaccinated. The new guidelines confused and frustrated pandemic-fatigued Americans who had counted on vaccines to usher in a summer of quasi-normalcy. But although more than half the U.S. population had received at least one dose of a vaccine by July, new cases were still on the rise, especially in Southern states with low vaccination numbers. According to the latest data from the CDC, average daily hospital admissions among Americans under fifty have hit a pandemic high.