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Dr. Barry Kreiswirth, research scientist for Hackensack Meridian Health system, explains on May 10, 2021 about lab work on COVID-19 variants in Nutley. NorthJersey.com

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The COVID-19 Delta variant has been spreading across the globe like wildfire recently, so it came as little surprise when state health officials announced this week that it was found in New Jersey. 

The Garden State had been riding high in recent months with key COVID indicators such as hospitalizations and deaths plummeting and restrictions on indoor gatherings and capacity limits lifted.  

But this highly-transmissible viral mutation has renewed concerns among health officials that a spike may be imminent among the unvaccinated as New Jersey's key COVID metrics have begun to plateau after months of decline.

Here is what experts know about the Delta variant and what impact it might have on New Jersey:

What is the Delta variant?

Viruses mutate often as they replicate, especially one such as COVID-19 that has infected millions across the globe. Most fizzle out of existence, but others emerge stronger and become variants.

The fourth major COVID variant — the Delta variant, also called B.1.617.2 — was discovered in December in India, which suffered a devastating second wave of coronavirus this year. It has circulated around the globe. Delta was first detected in the U.S. in March.

New Jersey has already been hit with at least three major variant strains — ones from the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa. The variants are believed to have been a key factor in causing a spike in COVID cases and hospitalizations in March after those numbers had been in decline since January. 

Does Delta spread faster than other strains?

Studies in the U.K. show that this variant has spread 40% to 60% more easily than other strains.

"The Delta variant, in particular, is clearly out-competing the other variants, which means it’s more transmissible," said Dr. Edward Lifshitz, medical director at the state Department of Health.

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How prevalent is Delta variant in NJ?

The Delta variant has made up 7.3% of all COVID strains that have been sequenced in the past four weeks. That is lower than the national average of 10%, which rose from 6% last week. 

Is it an accurate picture?

Like the rest of the U.S., only a small percentage of New Jersey's positive COVID test results are genetically sequenced to determine the variant because the state lacks the lab capacity to do the complex, labor-intensive testing on a large scale.

The data is also old. The latest test results are from early to mid-June.

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How bad is Delta variant elsewhere?

Most health experts are taking a close look at the United Kingdom, where the Delta variant has infected tens of thousands in recent weeks even though the U.K. has a similar vaccination rate as the U.S.

Cases have increased by 90% and deaths by 53% from two weeks ago, forcing U.K. reopening plans to be delayed for at least a month. President Joe Biden said last week that he doesn't believe the variant will lead to another lockdown in the U.S. 

The Delta variant varies widely so far in the U.S. 

Colorado officials say the Delta variant is responsible for 40% of all new infections in the state. Meanwhile, California and New York City reported that it made up only 5% and 5.6%, respectively, of their strains last week.

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Do vaccines work against Delta variant?

Yes. 

A U.K. study showed that the two-dose Pfizer vaccine was 88% effective against illness from the variant, although that's less effective than its 95% efficacy against the original strain.

That means the danger posed by the Delta variant is almost exclusively among the unvaccinated.

"Delta is not much of a risk for those who are fully vaccinated," said Jennifer Horney, director of the epidemiology program at the University of Delaware. "However, if we consider only the unvaccinated population, they will certainly see an increase in infections and hospitalizations."

But the same study shows that only one dose was just 33% effective against the variant. 

"It's one of those things that you can't let your guard down during those three to four weeks between shots," said Stephanie Silvera, a public health professor at Montclair State University. "You have to act as if you are unvaccinated."

NJ's COVID numbers recently stopped declining. Is the variant the cause?

COVID cases, deaths, hospitalizations and other key metrics have plummeted since early April thanks in large part to increased vaccination rates. 

But in the past 10 days, those numbers have begun to plateau — or as Gov. Phil Murphy says, "go sideways." Hospitalizations due to COVID have hovered around 300 to 330 each day.

The Delta variant is one of the reasons — just as other variants were likely responsible for spikes in the fall and late winter, health officials said. 

"We've seen this movie before to some extent," said Lifshitz.

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That New Jersey dropped its indoor mask mandate, capacity limits and social distancing rules last month could also play a role, as could the fact that daily vaccination rates have dropped significantly over the past three months.

The state's mega-sites are closing and the shift is now to targeted communities where micro-clinics are being set up to vaccinate those who are on the fence.

Will the variant cause an increase in cases, hospitalizations, deaths?

All eyes are on New Jersey's current COVID numbers, which, while still low, have stubbornly plateaued.  

But health experts are more concerned about autumn, when cooler weather forces people to head indoors — where COVID is much more easily transmissible.

"There is a lot more opportunity for Delta to infect people and spread," said Christopher Thompson, a biology professor and immunologist at Loyola University in Maryland.

"It seems likely that this will be somewhat limited to hotspots throughout New Jersey, and the country, where the number of fully vaccinated people in a community are lower, allowing the virus to get a foothold and spread," he said.

Lifshitz was a bit more optimistic, saying the worst is most likely behind New Jersey.

"It's hard for me to imagine that we'll get back to as bad as where we were last winter," he said. "But certainly, I am concerned."

Vaccination is the clear problem solver for the Delta variant, said Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli. 

"We can stop this virus because it will have nowhere to go before new variants come in," she said. 

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Email: fallon@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @newsfallon 

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