Delta Variant Has Ohio COVD-19 Cases, Hospitalizations On The Rise Again

Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, chief medical officer at the Ohio Department of Health, addresses concerns about the delta variant's rise in Ohio during a news briefing Wednesday, July 14, 2021. [Ohio Department of Health]
Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, chief medical officer at the Ohio Department of Health, addresses concerns about the delta variant's rise in Ohio during a news briefing Wednesday, July 14, 2021. [Ohio Department of Health]

The delta variant, the highly contagious COVID-19 strain causing surges in cases and hospitalizations across the country, is on the rise in Ohio and on track to become the dominant strain in the state, state health officials said Wednesday.

Preliminary data shows the variant accounted for more than 30 percent of recent samples sequenced in the state, said Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, chief medical officer of the Ohio Department of Health (ODH).

The variant’s presence jumped from 1.9 percent of samples at the end of May to 15 percent in mid-June, then doubled in the two weeks after, he said.

As a result, Ohio is beginning to see slight increases in cases and hospitalizations, Vanderhoff said.

“We’re seeing, after a long period of continuous decline, now several days of an uptick,” he said. “When we put those pieces together, it sure makes one think delta might be at play here, that we might be seeing the beginning of delta’s impact on the state of Ohio.”

The state’s overall COVID-19 case rate increased from 17.6 cases per 100,000 residents to 22.9 this week, he said. Hospitalizations are also up, increasing from 200 on July 9 to 264 as of Wednesday morning.

Vanderhoff acknowledged some of the recent increase could be tied to people gathering and spreading the virus during the Fourth of July holiday, but the delta variant does appear to be driving the spread, he said.

The variant is concerning because it is much more easily transmissible than other versions of the coronavirus, said Dr. Andrew Thomas, chief clinical officer at Wexner Medical Center.

Studies are showing delta to be 50 percent more contagious than the alpha variant, which has also been known as B.1.1.7 and is itself 50 percent more contagious than the original virus strain.

The virus spreads through air particles expended when people talk, cough or sneeze. Delta causes a higher viral load in these particles, which is what makes it more contagious, Thomas said.

While it is thought that the variant may cause more severe disease, this is primarily a concern for people who are not vaccinated, Vanderhoff said. All of the vaccines currently authorized appear to protect well against the variant, he said, and can lessen the severity of the illness should a vaccinated person be infected. And, Vanderhoff added, emerging research shows the chances a vaccinated person could become infected and transmit the illness are still low.

It is too early for officials to observe any regional trends about where the spread is occurring most in the state, Vanderhoff said, but trends in other states are a warning sign to the largely unvaccinated counties. In Missouri, cases are surging in areas with low vaccination uptake.

“Now that we’re seeing this very early uptick, it’s all the more reason for us to be aware of what delta has done elsewhere, and likely how it will behave here in Ohio, which is: it will move rapidly in the unvaccinated population,” he said.

In Holmes County, just 15 percent of the population is vaccinated, according to ODH data. Other rural Ohio counties, including Wayne and Tuscarawas, are reporting vaccination rates below 35 percent.

Holmes and Wayne counties reported case rates around 25 per 100,000 residents last week, while Tuscarawas’s case rate was 14.

Vaccination rates tend to be highest in the state’s metro areas, while rural areas are still reporting low uptake, Vanderhoff added.

“Vaccine hesitancy exists in pockets across the state,” Vanderhoff said. “It does concern me, and other health care leaders, when we look and we see we have communities across the state that still have relatively low vaccination rates, and many of those are our rural communities.”

Thomas added that vaccine hesitancy also seems to be tied to age. Vaccinations are lagging in the 20 to 40 age group, perhaps due to people thinking their risk is lower, he said.

“Those folks that are in that 20 and 30 and 40 age group really can do their part by rolling up their sleeve and getting vaccinated to try and make sure we can keep this under control for the entire state,” Thomas said. “Even though there may be a little less personal interest in this… it’s really in the interest of our communities and our state if all of those people take the opportunity to get vaccinated.”

The best way to stay protected against delta is to get the vaccine, Thomas and Vanderhoff said Wednesday. Thomas also recommended wearing a mask in crowded areas – even outdoors.

The delta variant does not typically spread outdoors, according to Vanderhoff, but Thomas said crowded outdoor events where people are close together, like concerts, create conditions similar to indoor gatherings.

COVID-19 variants are identified and tracked through genomic sequencing, a process in which researchers analyze the genetic sequence of a sample of a PCR test, the COVID test that uses a nasal swab. If the sample sequence matches that of an identified variant, such as delta, it is sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for further analysis.

The process takes multiple weeks, which is why data on delta’s presence in Ohio is lagging, Vanderhoff said.

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