by Jim Bruce
[Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.]
When I began several months ago to think about a Tuesday Reading on this subject, COVID-19 seemed to be in a decline. The January/February 2021 U.S. peak of some 250,000 daily infections (seven-day average) was receding in our memories and hopes for at least a more normal fall were widely expressed and planning was underway. I expected to write about the changes we each would have to make as we transitioned from working at home with spouses/partners/roommates/children/pets and competition among the various schedules and needs. And, no commute. I also wanted to write about what individual managers might do to make the transition easier and more satisfying for all.
And, I will do some of that in next week’s Tuesday Reading. However, this week, I want to write about the current COVID-19 virus, the Delta variant, which is significantly changed from the virus first seen in the U.S. early in 2020. Studies1 now show that the Delta variant, which was first observed in India in March 2021, about six months ago, replicates much more quickly and generates far more virus particles than were seen in infections linked to the original virus.
As scientists have learned, and continue to learn more about this virus, they have concluded that “Delta” is one of the most infectious respiratory viruses known. Think about it this way. At the beginning of the pandemic the CDC said that 15 minutes indoors without a mask with someone who had COVUD constituted close contact. For a person with the Delta variant, which now constitutes over 99% of new infections in the U.S., that 15 minutes has become 1 second. As an example, a California elementary school teacher took off her mask to read aloud. Within a few days, half of her class tested positive for Delta and at least eight family members, including parents and siblings of the infected students tested positive.2
Delta, according to the World Health Organization, has spread to more than 135 countries. And, it is more likely to evade antibodies creating infections in people who have been vaccinated or have previously had the virus. Delta’s success, if you can call it “success,” is the ease in which it spreads — about as infectious as chicken pox and only slightly less than measles. (Measles is considered to be one of the most contagious known viruses.) Epidemiologists use a metric R0 – pronounced “R naught” – to indicate the average number of additional individuals each infected person is expected to infect and to serve as an indicator of how easily an infectious disease spreads. While the original COVID-19 virus identified in Wuhan, China had an R0 of 2–3, the COVID Alpha virus had an R0 between 4-5 and the Delta R0 is the range 5–9, slightly less than chicken pox which has an R0 pf 10–12 and less than measles with an R0 of 12-18.
However, not only is Delta more transmissible than the earlier strains of COVID–19, it can also cause a more severe disease. Current research suggests that people infected with the Delta variant have 1,000 times more virus particles than individuals infected with earlier strains. In addition, Delta can be detected in a newly infected person four days after exposure to a sick individual, compared to six days for the original virus. These two factors mean that Delta spreads more rapidly. And, if this is not enough, Delta, in some instances, is able to evade immune responses, both those from a natural infection as well as from vaccination. (These breakthrough infections number about 1% of current infections and are generally less severe as well as not leading to hospitalization or death.) Total infections now are at the daily rate of 191,300 (September 3) and are projected to remain around this rate through mid-September.
According to current models, by the end of July 2021, vaccinations had prevented some 280,000 deaths in the U.S. and some 1.25 million hospitalizations. Unfortunately, by early September 2021, only about 53.5% of the U.S. population had been fully vaccinated. Approximately 93 million Americans, 12 or older, who are eligible to be vaccinated, have not been. This means that more people will become infected, become seriously ill, be hospitalized and potentially die than would be the case were everyone vaccinated.
Each of us needs to protect ourselves through vaccination and masking, and, in some instances, social distancing. This pandemic will only disappear if more people are vaccinated (and keep current with any necessary additional vaccinations), the virus is wiped out worldwide as smallpox was in 1980 via a worldwide immunization campaign, or it becomes a virus more like the flu for which effective annual vaccinations mitigate the virus’ effects. The task before us is getting from where we are, with significant frequent peaks of infection and hospitalization to, for example, a disease more like the flu. That will take time and greater acceptance of perhaps annual vaccinations and mask wearing, perhaps for several more years.
Roy Anderson, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Imperial College London, summed it up this way: “People have got to realize, this is not going to go away. We’re going to be able to manage it because of modern medicine and vaccines, but it is not something that will just vanish out of the window.” 3
Be safe. . . . jim