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COVID-19 delta variant: UNMC doctor explains what you need to know

The medical center also unveiled animation illustrating the vaccine’s impact on the variant.
UNMC Dr. James Lawler talks about the COVID-19 delta variant, which has been found to more...
UNMC Dr. James Lawler talks about the COVID-19 delta variant, which has been found to more easily spread even among vaccinated people.(Marlo Lundak / WOWT)
Published: Aug. 5, 2021 at 11:01 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 5, 2021 at 11:34 AM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - In an effort to show the impact of the COVID-19 delta variant, UNMC on Thursday unveiled animated simulations used as part of its work with the federal government’s first-responder training on how the virus infects people.

Dr. James Lawler, co-executive director of the Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, talked about the COVID-19 B.1.617.2 variant also known as the delta variant, which experts say is more easily spread from person to person than the alpha variant first detected in the U.S. in December 2020.

“I think people should be very concerned about the trends we’re seeing,” he said.

Dr. Lawler said Thursday he recommends facemasks be worn in indoor public settings, including schools. Saying that global trends indicate the delta variant will continue to spread in the local community during the coming weeks, he suggested the same protocols put in place in the fall are warranted now.

If the virus follows similar patterns here that it has elsewhere, “we may be in for another six weeks of growth — that doesn’t account for the fact that we’re about to open schools,” he said.

“If we open schools without kids with facemasks... we’re just going to be throwing gasoline on a fire at that point,” he said, noting it will have a domino effect that translates into increased hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and deaths.

“Those deaths are not going to be in 85-year-olds anymore. Those deaths are occurring in 45-year-olds,” he said.

Dr. Lawler said a resurgence of COVID-19 and other serious respiratory viruses, like RSV and parainfluenza, may start to eat into the limited pediatric critical care resources.

“I’m very worried about what’s going to happen with pediatric hospital capacity over the coming weeks,” he said.

Dr. Lawler said he thinks the trends seen now in other states and abroad are an indication of what’s ahead here.

“I’m concerned this is going to be the worst phase of the pandemic for much of the U.S., particularly states like ours that have low vaccination rates,” he said.

Vaccinations aren’t perfect, he said, but “we’re seeing a dramatic reduction in severe infections and hospitalizations in people who are fully vaccinated.”

Dr. Lawler said vaccinations also have a “very good safety profile” for pregnant women, and that it’s important for pregnant women to get vaccinated “because their rate of complications for COVID-19 are much greater than non-pregnant women.”

The recent discovery that the delta variant is also able to transmit through fully vaccinated people led the CDC to recommend again wearing masks in public indoor settings in areas that are seeing “substantial or high transmission” in order to reduce the risk of virus spread.

NMC also unveiled animated infographics Thursday to illustrate how the delta variant spreads, how COVID-19 vaccinations work against it, and how COVID-19 affects the lungs. The medical center’s iEXCEL team in the Davis Global Center created the animation with Dr. Peter Angeletti of UNL’s Nebraska Center for Virology.

The spiky red proteins are what connects to healthy cells through cell receptors, acting like a lock and key.

“What we’re seeing with delta variant is there’s some changes in the spike protein that allow the virus to bind more tightly to its cell receptor and to gain entry into cells more readily,” Dr. Lawler said.

But when antibodies from COVID-19 vaccinations are in the system, the virus and the healthy cell have a much harder time locking together, preventing the virus from replicating.

Dr. Lawler said he hopes the visualizations help the community recognize how easy it can be to protect themselves, warning that if hospitals see another surge, healthcare workers may not be able to protect you.

Dr. Lawler also said he was concerned about the mental state of healthcare workers as the delta variant ramps up.

“It’s going to be hard,” he said.

Dr. Lawler said it will be difficult to provide good care to those who may be flooding their doors in the coming weeks and months as many healthcare workers are already burned out.

Watch Thursday’s news conference

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