W. L. Hightower, pastor of New Zion Baptish Church in Louisville, receives the Moderna vaccine, administered by Mississippi State Department of Health Phamacist Kathryn Ward at New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson. Hightower was among a number of African American faith leaders from across the state to receive the COVID-19 vaccination Monday at New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Tower

As public health experts have warned for weeks, the Delta variant of COVID-19 is now the dominant strain circulating in Mississippi, causing a spike in cases and hospitalizations. 

Delta is now also the dominant variant across the United States. Nationally, the average number of new cases has started to trend upwards due to localized Delta outbreaks in places, like Mississippi, that have low vaccination rates. 

With 678 confirmed cases, the Alpha variant, which originated in the United Kingdom, still represents over 75% of all variant infections in Mississippi, but the Delta variant is now circulating much faster. Over the past two weeks the number of Delta cases has increased more than fivefold, up from 29 to 137. 

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs has repeatedly stressed that Mississippians have the choice of getting vaccinated or contracting COVID-19, and that in every scenario a vaccinated person is going to have a better outcome than if they had declined the shot.

The Delta variant has considerably increased the already high risks posed by the virus to unvaccinated people. The variant, first identified in India, is believed to be about 60 percent more contagious than the Alpha variant and up to twice as contagious as the original strain of COVID-19. 

READ MORE: MAP: Where Mississippians can get the COVID-19 vaccine

The vaccines are nearly as effective against the Delta variant as the original strain, greatly minimizing the chance of infection and nearly eliminating the risks of developing a serious illness. Studies suggest, however, that being fully vaccinated is the only adequate protection against the Delta variant, as a single shot of either of the two-dose mRNA vaccines provides only weak protection against infection.

Scientists have put forth an explanation for the overall decrease in efficacy of the vaccines against the variant. According to a new study published on Thursday in Nature, evolutions in the Delta variant’s spike proteins make it more difficult for antibodies to attach themselves and fight the virus.

Still, the data collected on COVID-19 infections and deaths over the last few months has made the benefits offered by vaccination irrefutable. The Associated Press has reported that nearly all new COVID deaths in the U.S. are among the unvaccinated. Of the more than 18,000 COVID-19 deaths that occurred in May, only around 150, or 0.8% were from fully vaccinated people. 

Due to the surge of Delta infections across the globe, the World Health Organization recently repeated its longstanding recommendation that everyone, vaccinated or not, wear masks to limit the spread of infections. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not changed its advice that fully vaccinated Americans can forgo masks in most situations. Current CDC guidance states that in general “you do not need to wear a mask in outdoor settings” if you’re fully vaccinated. In areas with high numbers of COVID-19 cases, it is recommended you wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings, or other environments where you will come into close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, said in a Meet The Press appearance on July 4 that he would still wear a mask in Mississippi even though he’s fully vaccinated.

“You might want to go the extra step and say that when I’m in that area, where there’s a considerable degree of viral circulation, I might want to go the extra mile to ensure that I get the extra added layer of protection, even though the vaccines themselves are highly effective,” Fauci said.

Despite the wide availability of vaccines and the risks posed by variants, Mississippi continues to rank last in the nation in the share of its population that has been vaccinated. 

With over 2 million shots administered, only 31% of Mississippians have been fully vaccinated. People are simply declining to get their shots, and this is keeping Mississippi in last place.

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.