The Atlantic Daily: A Nuanced Guide to Delta

It’s easy to feel despondent or indifferent about the pandemic these days. Here’s a better way to think about Delta.

A man in a mask getting a vaccine
Spencer Platt / Getty

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Almost a year ago, I wrote that America was trapped in a pandemic spiral, making the same errors of intuition again and again. One of the nine mistakes I identified was the tendency to create false dichotomies. That tendency still plagues us today.

Following the CDC’s recommendation to reinstate some level of indoor masking, and a concerning outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts, attitudes toward the Delta variant have forked between despondency and indifference. Here are some guidelines for thinking about Delta in a more nuanced way:

Vaccinated people are not fully safe … but they’re much safer than unvaccinated people.

Full vaccination is about 88 percent effective at preventing symptomatic Delta infections. Vaccinated people can still get infected, especially if the virus is running amok in their local community. But if that happens, they will probably have an easier time of it—full vaccination is 96 percent effective at preventing Delta-caused hospitalizations. In hard-hit states such as Missouri, most of the COVID-19 patients in hospital beds are unvaccinated.

Breakthrough infections are relatively rare … but won’t feel rare.

A recent NBC News headline stated that about 125,000 fully vaccinated Americans have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s a lot of people, but it’s also just 0.08 percent of the 165 million who are fully vaccinated.

The denominator matters: Breakthrough infections, as well as being relatively mild, are also relatively rare. But the numerator matters, too: Rare events can feel common when they occur in a large-enough population. A lot of people will individually know a vaccinated person who becomes infected, even though the vaccines are still working as intended.

Vaccinated people are unlikely to transmit Delta as easily as unvaccinated people … but they can probably still spread it.

Coverage of the CDC’s Provincetown study suggested that vaccinated and unvaccinated people experience similar viral loads when infected with Delta. But another study from Singapore showed that although viral loads are initially comparable, they fall much more quickly in vaccinated people. And given that vaccinated people are also much less likely to get infected in the first place, they are far less likely to transmit the variant than unvaccinated people.

Still, several lines of evidence suggest that vaccinated people can transmit Delta onward, if not to the same extent as unvaccinated people. That supports the CDC’s recent recommendation that vaccinated people should wear masks indoors, especially in areas with high community spread.

We are not back to square one … but we’re not out of the woods.

Vaccines might not be able to control the spread of Delta on their own, but they remain our best tool for managing the pandemic. And even though unvaccinated people are still in severe danger, vaccinated people are significantly safer than they were at this time last year. The U.S. isn’t back to the carefree summer of 2019, but it’s not at the devastating winter of 2020 either.

The news in three sentences:

(1) President Joe Biden signed an executive order aiming to make half of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. zero-emissions cars by 2030. (2) The American labor leader Richard Trumka died at age 72. (3) The River Fire is spreading through Northern California, forcing thousands to evacuate.

What to read if … you’re looking for practical advice on how to manage your risk in light of Delta:

Tonight’s Atlantic-approved activity:

An electric new story collection, Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties, “sketches a world where the lights are dimmer, the truths blurrier, the hangover incoming,” Zoë Hu writes.

A break from the news:

Which pet will make you happiest?

Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.