What just happened?

New variants of COVID are leading to some of the worst outbreaks since the start of the pandemic. Countries in Southeast Asia are seeing rapid rises in case numbers and deaths.

Nations that had previously managed to contain outbreaks last year, CNN reports, are now struggling with overwhelmed health services, a lack of hospital beds, equipment, and oxygen.

The Delta variant is also causing outbreaks throughout the United States, especially in states such as Arkansas, Missouri, and Nevada, which have low vaccination rates.

“This is a new phase of the pandemic,” says Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We’re seeing positive effects of the vaccination problem, but at the same time . . . it ain’t over till it’s over. We’re continuing to see transmission occurring, and we have a significant portion of the population that is unimmunized.”

What is a COVID variant?

COVID-19, short for “Coronavirus Disease 2019,” is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

Viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 are constantly mutating, which causes a change in their genetic structure. A viral variant is a virus whose genome sequence differs from that of a reference virus. While every virus may be a slight variant, the term is generally used only in reference to viruses that are significantly ​​different from the original.

COVID variants are thus variants of SARS-CoV-2 that can cause people to contract the disease known as COVID-19.

What are variants called?

To assist with public discussions of variants, the World Health Organization proposed using labels consisting of the Greek alphabet. Existing named variants include Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Eta, Iota, and Kappa.

How are variants classified?

The U.S. government’s SARS-CoV-2 Interagency Group defines three classes of SARS-CoV-2 variants: variant of interest, variant of concern, and variant of high consequence.

A variant of interest might require specific public health actions, such as epidemiological investigations to assess how easily the virus spreads to others, the severity of the disease, the efficacy of therapeutics, and whether currently authorized vaccines offer protection. Current variants of interest in the U.S. include Eta, Iota, and Kappa.

Variants of concern might also require public health actions, such as new diagnostics or the modification of vaccines or treatments. Current variants of interest in the U.S. include Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta.

A variant of high consequence has clear evidence that prevention measures or medical countermeasures have significantly reduced effectiveness relative to previously circulating variants. Today there are no SARS-CoV-2 variants that rise to the level of high consequence.

What variants are a threat in the United States?

There are four notable variants in the United States: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta.

As the CDC notes, these variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19.

Is the Delta variant more dangerous?

Researchers don’t yet know if the Delta variant makes people any more ill than the other varieties. As of now, the symptoms for this variant appear to be the same as the original version of COVID-19. However, physicians are seeing people grow sick quicker, especially younger people.

What makes the Delta variant so troubling is the ease by which it can spread. The CDC has described Delta as more transmissible than the common cold, influenza, smallpox, MERS, SARS, or Ebola—and as contagious as chickenpox.

The first Delta case was identified in December 2020. Today, Delta is estimated to be the cause of more than 90 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

Are variants more dangerous to children?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 4.2 million children have contracted COVID-19. However, the number of children contracting COVID-19 has increased fivefold since the end of June, with an 84 percent increase in the last week alone, according to a new report by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

A study in Great Britain also found that the children ages 5–12 were 2.5 times more likely to catch the Delta variant compared with those 50 and older.

“As older age groups get vaccinated, those who are younger and unvaccinated will be at higher risk of getting COVID-19 with any variant,” says Dr. Inci Yildirim, a Yale Medicine pediatric infectious diseases specialist and a vaccinologist. “But Delta seems to be impacting younger age groups more than previous variants.”

Children who contract COVID-19 are less likely to be hospitalized or die than adults. Only around 0.1–1.9 percent of all child COVID-19 cases resulted in hospitalization, and in states reporting, only 0.00–0.03 percent of all child COVID-19 cases resulted in death.

Can vaccinated people be infected by a variant?

Based on current knowledge, people who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus appear to have much stronger protection against the Delta variant compared to the unvaccinated.

With the COVID-19 vaccines averaging an efficacy of about 90 percent, health experts expect about 10 percent of the vaccinated could be infected. Typically, vaccinated people are either asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms if they contract the Delta variant.

How should Christians respond to ​​these variants?

The new variants, especially Delta, are ​occurring in a considerably different context than the original SARS-CoV-2 outbreak. When the virus first came to America, no one was yet vaccinated or had acquired natural immunity. That influenced how we responded to the threat of this deadly pandemic. But today, 168.4 million people—49.6 percent of the U.S. population—are fully vaccinated.

The fact that about half the adult population has been vaccinated can be misleading, though, since the rate is not uniform across the country. Between the states with the lowest vaccination rates (Alabama and Mississippi with 34.6 and 34.8 percent, respectively) and the highest rates of vaccination (Vermont and Massachusetts with 67.7 and 64.1, respectively) there is a gap of about 33 percent.

The states with lower vaccination rates are among those being hit hardest by the variants. For example, Louisiana has a COVID-19 case rate of 93 per 100,000 people compared to Vermont, with 7 per 100,000 people. In some states, low-vaccination areas (such as rural towns) are near high vaccination areas (such as large cities). This could result in “hyperlocal outbreaks,” says Dr. F. Perry Wilson, a Yale Medicine epidemiologist. “Then, the pandemic could look different than what we’ve seen before, where there are real hotspots around the country.”

This means that the reaction to the variants by individual Christians as well as church leaders will differ based on our regional context. How we carry out the command to love our neighbor may therefore be heavily influenced by how many of our neighbors have been vaccinated. For example, those who are vaccinated and live in high-vaccination areas may need to be more concerned about traveling to low-vaccination areas, since they could be asymptomatic and unknowingly spreading the variant (this appears to be a significant contributor to outbreaks in Florida).

Most Americans—including many Christians—are no longer letting new evidence change their views or their actions as it relates to COVID-19. Positions about whether to be vaccinated or wear masks have become solidified, and even politicized, to the point that few are willing to change their opinions, much less how they live their lives.

However lamentable such intransigence may be, as Christians we must still strive to align our perspective to God’s revealed realities. While we can never be sure whether our actions are as loving as they could be, we should do our best to ensure that the actions we take to protect our neighbors from these deadly viruses are based on how we believe Jesus has called us to love others.