(LEX 18) — The highly contagious and transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19 is spreading widely across the country, but the state's top doctor says Kentuckians have no need to be afraid.
Just as people returned to their pre-pandemic norms and thought they were nearing the end of the coronavirus pandemic, a new variant has begun triggering faded fear.
"It is by far the most contagious variant of this virus we have seen throughout the whole pandemic, it's what has caused the huge spikes in India," said Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of Brown University School of Public Health.
Dr. Anthony Fauci called it the greatest threat to the nation eliminating COVID-19.
CDC data shows the Delta variant is spreading fast. In the span of just one month, cases of the strain have gone from near 0 to more than 25% of cases in the U.S.
But local leaders say that concern should be narrowly focused regionally.
"You can look to be going on vacation in another state, look up the county, see the positivity rate, see the vaccination rate. In most places in Kentucky, you're gonna be better off here than there," said Gov. Beshear on Thursday during his weekly Team Kentucky address.
The state's top doctor, Steven Stack says he's right. Stack says Kentuckians should be responsible, but there's no need to be fearful.
"If you do get vaccinated, you're well protected from the worst harms," said Stack.
Dr. Stack says about 1% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Kentucky have been a COVID-19 variant, including the Delta variant. He's concerned that number will go up.
"I promise you that it will increase, and it may increase quickly," said Dr. Stack. "We think [the Delta variant] could be up to two and a half times more effective at spreading. When it gets into a community, it may go through even more like wildfire through a community who's unvaccinated."
Studies are proving the Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson and Johnson vaccines are all highly effective against the Delta variant. Stack says people should find comfort in that science.
"The day that we find a variant for which the vaccines don't work, then people might, might need to be more concerned," he explained.
He says over time people will get some degree of immunity from being vaccinated or from being infected. But simultaneously, if you live in an area where vaccination rates are low and COVID cases are high, you may need to have an extra level of concern and a mask in tow.
"What we're already seeing across the country, and we will see it in Kentucky too, is that in communities that have much lower vaccination rates, those will be the ones that people get particularly sick, who go into intensive care units, go on ventilators and ultimately and sadly die from what is now a largely preventable bad outcome," said Stack.
He says the level of fear for most Kentuckians is in their own hands. According to his data, if you're immunocompromised, or under the age of vaccination, choosing to get vaccinated could prevent significant illness and fear.
"I can rattle off a lot of numbers here, but that's not how we persuade people. We persuade people with stories about the impact to them and their lives and their families and their communities. And I think, unfortunately, there's going to have to be some harm that occurs, and that will occur in communities with lower vaccination rates. I hope we can prevent as much of that as possible, but people must make the choice to choose a different path," said Stack.
Stack says right now, Kentucky is headed in the right direction, but knows how quickly things change.
"I hope we never get back. At least not anytime soon, to times where we must think about more dramatic measures," said Stack.
Dr. Stack says the best way to minimize the risk of the Delta variant spreading is to make sure everyone gets vaccinated.
"Because things that happened across the world as we saw, spread very quickly," he said. "To hear this started in China, and it was over in the United States in less than two months, so we've got to make sure all of us are safe because until then, none of us are safe."
The latest data from the Kentucky Department of Public Health says nearly 2.2 million Kentuckians have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Stack also talked about where and when Kentuckians should be wearing a mask. Guidelines have changed and it's now normal to see others not wearing masks, but Dr. Stack says people should still be tolerant of others who still wear one.
"So remember, someone who is wearing a mask, may be doing it because they themselves have a compromised immune system," said Dr. Stack. "It may be that one of their loved ones in their household has a weakened immune system. We have to be tolerant of other people choosing to do that.
This map from the CDC shows the transmission rates in most counties in the United States.
If the county is in blue (low transmission) or in yellow (moderate transmission), the chances of contracting the virus is low if you are not vaccinated.
If you live in an orange or red county or are planning on traveling to a red or orange county, wearing a mask or getting vaccinated is recommended.
"If you live in one of those counties with lower vaccination rates, and you are having confidence in what I'm telling you that you should still be concerned about getting infected, you may want to wear a mask more often," said Dr. Stack. "And if you travel somewhere in the United States, you can go on the CDC website and you can see where the immunization rates are. You can even do it by county, but if you look at the state level, it's probably sufficient if you're just going to go on vacation."
Blue means that in the last 7 days, 0-9.99 people per 100,000 have tested positive. 35% of American counties are in low transmission counties.
Yellow is 10-49.99 positive tests per 100,000 people and just over 43% of counties are in moderate risk.
Orange means that 50-99.99 people per 100,000 have had a positive test in the past 7 days. A little more than 11.5% of counties fall into this and as of Tuesday, 15 counties in Kentucky are in orange.
Finally, red is a high transmission. This means that 100 or more people per 100,000 have tested positive. Just under 10% of counties fall into this category and 8 Kentucky counties are in the red.