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12 of the most pressing questions (and answers) about the dreaded Delta variant

By Johanna Añes-de la Cruz, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 11, 2021 4:56 pm Updated Aug 11, 2021 5:30 pm

We reached our highest single-day tally of COVID-19 cases at 12,021 today, Aug. 11. The last time we breached the 11,000 mark was in April 2021. Active cases also surged to 76,063, the highest since April 25, when there were more than 77,000.

The numbers are foreboding.

On Monday, Aug. 9, the Department of Health (DOH) announced that the country has reverted to “high risk” category due to an increase in infections driven by the Delta variant.

First detected in December 2020, the Delta strain is considered more contagious than others, spreading 50% faster than the previous Alpha strain, which itself is already more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus from Wuhan, China.

To help address the most pressing questions on the dreaded Delta strain, the Philippine Star and PhilStar L!fe together with Medicard held a webinar on Monday entitled “The Real Deal About Delta.”

Panelists Dr. Nina Gloriani, head of the Philippine Expert Panel on COVID-19 vaccines; Dr. Anna Lisa Ong-Lim, member, DOH and IATF Technical Advisory Group; and Dr. Melvin Sanicas, medical director of Takeda and Digital Health Expert of the World Health Organization (WHO) answered the most frequently asked questions on the new COVID-19 variant and everything else in between with host Malou Mangahas.

Dr. Anna Lisa Ong-Lim
  1. What are the key differences between the Delta strain and other existing variants?

Dr. Ong-Lim emphasized that as time goes by the virus mutates. “These changes or mutations in its genetic material provide the opportunity ng mga pagbabago dun sa kanyang mga katangian tulad ng pagpaparami, pagiging mas mabangis or mas matindi nung sakit na kanyang dala-dala. In the case of Delta, part of what is already known about this variant is that it is more transmissible compared to the Alpha, and of course, compared to the original strain. The likelihood that it will infect more people across different age groups is higher.

  1. Are the symptoms of the Delta variant the same with other variants?

Dr. Sanicas said that there might have been a shift in symptoms. “Previously, marami tayong nakikitang loss of smell, sore throat, cough. At the moment, ang nakikita nila with the Delta, mas maraming symptoms na parang allergic symptoms, basically, sneezing and runny nose.”

However, he clarified that they are not yet entirely sure if this shift is because of Delta or because of concomitant conditions like hay fever in a certain population.

  1. Just how transmissible is the Delta variant?

All of the panelists agreed that Delta is more transmissible compared to the original strain. “One way to imagine this is ‘yung original Wuhan COVID-19 virus was supposed to infect about 2-2.5 people per positive case. Si Alpha is able to infect about three, whereas si Delta is able to infect anywhere between 5 and 8 people,” said Dr. Ong-Lim. She also mentioned that the viral load of a person infected with the Delta variant is higher compared to those infected with the other kinds.

Dr. Gloriani added that the variant’s mutation allows it to attach to the human host faster and stronger.

  1. How can lockdowns and curfews help prevent the spread of the Delta variant?

Many of the webinar’s viewers questioned the necessity of imposing another ECQ (Enhanced Community Quarantine) from Aug. 6 to 20.

Dr. Ong-Lim was quick to stress how lockdowns and curfews could help halt the rise in infections, “Yung point ng curfew is to decrease mobility. Siyempre hindi namin pwedeng sabihin na huwag kayong kikilos during the day kasi ‘yun naman ang oras ng trabaho.”

She added, “Going back to the question kung ECQ na lang ba nang ECQ tayo, hindi naman talaga dapat. We have to figure out ways for the ECQ (to be) productive. ‘Yung mga kailangan nating mabigyan ng attention, mabigyan ng panahon will be implemented, and at the same time yung pagbawas sa pagkilos ng mga tao, we’re hoping na magkaka-impact ‘yun dun sa dami ng kaso, which will start to happen in two weeks so that unti-unting mabawasan yung strain sa health care capacity.”

Dr. Melvin Sanicas
  1. Are younger people more at risk from the Delta variant?

Dr. Ong-Lim, who is a pediatrician, emphasized that the faster transmissibility of the Delta variant enables it to affect more people, and not necessarily because it specifically targets younger people.

“I think a better way to look at it is kunwari may Delta virus na paikot-ikot diyan, hindi niya tatargetin ‘yung bata dahil lang bata siya. Kumbaga pupunta siya kung kanino siya pwedeng makahawa.”

  1. Are vaccines effective against the Delta variant?

When asked about the efficacy and effectiveness of vaccines, Dr. Sanicas reminded the public that the best way to protect ourselves from the Delta variant is to get fully vaccinated. “Ang sinasabi po ng US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is really the most important thing you can do to protect yourself from the Delta variant is to get fully vaccinated. They have been very clear about that.”

In addressing the misgivings about Sinovac, he said that there are not yet a lot of studies on the brand, except the ones from Chile which showed that the vaccine is still very good in preventing hospitalization and death.

He added that the situation in China could ease the worries of those doubting the vaccine’s efficacy, “China is using a lot of Sinovac and Sinopharm especially in Guangdong, where they saw the Delta variant. So far hospitalizations and death rates are not going up as expected, which tells us, in a way, that the vaccine works.”

Dr. Gloriani reiterated that all vaccines help protect against severe cases across all variants. She likewise stressed that your own health status is a factor on how effective or not a vaccine is. “Your protection will also depend on your health status. Kung ikaw ay immunocompromised o may comorbidity, mas susceptible ka. Kahit anong sabihin nating mataas ang efficacy niyan, baka sa iyo hindi. Pero sa general population, sa mas healthy, mas mataas yun.”

  1. How could we better protect ourselves from the Delta variant?

In the Philippines, there are fewer than 12 million people who have had their first dose, and fewer who have had their second jab. Given this still relatively low vaccination rate, people are even more worried about the additional risks that the Delta variant poses.

Dr. Gloriani said that vaccines are not the only solution, rather we can do a lot to help stop the spread of the virus, “A lot of this is nasa kamay din ng ating mga tao. Pag dumating lahat ng bakunang nanegotiate natin, na sa pagkakaalam ko ay nasa more than 200 million doses until the end of the year, kasyang kasya na yan doon sa 70% (herd immunity). The thing is hindi nga siya dumadating. Dahil doon importante na maintindihan ng mga tao ‘yung role nila na mapabagal o ma-stop ang transmission. How do we do that? Kaya nga tayo may lockdown. Hindi na lang Delta variant yan, may Delta plus variant pa sa ibang bansa.”

Dr. Sanicas reminds us to go back to the basics, “A lot of layers we can do to reduce our risk are very effective like physical distancing, staying at home when you are sick, washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask. If you add vaccination on top of those, it’s really going to help control the outbreak.”

Dr. Nina Gloriani
  1. Should people get booster shots?

Dr. Gloriani mentioned that prior to the webinar, she and Dr. Ong-Lim came from a meeting with over 60 experts on vaccines, some of who recommended the administration of booster shots to healthcare workers.

“For equity mas mainam na mabigyan muna ng first two doses yung mas marami para meron tayong population protection,”

  1. Why are there fully vaccinated people who still die from COVID-19?

There have been reports of “breakthrough cases” or those fully vaccinated individuals who still succumbed to the virus. To quell people’s fears, the panelists assured the public that these are rare cases.

“Ang namamatay na fully vaccinated ay usually elderly at may mga comorbidities. Meron pero hindi marami. Ang mas marami sa naiinfect na vaccinated ay mild to moderate, mas marami pa rin yung mild,” said Dr. Gloriani.

Dr. Sanicas added, “Breakthrough infections happen, they are very rare, though. Sabihin natin less than one percent. And sa mga fully vaccinated na naiinfect, hindi po lahat yan namamatay, kasi nga they have protection.”

  1. How quickly can we attain herd immunity?

It has been said that to achieve herd immunity, 70% of the population must be vaccinated. Dr. Ong-Lim said that we do not necessarily need to achieve this to make the population better protected against the virus.

“Balikan natin yung objective, kailangan nating mabigyan ng proteksyon ang pinakamatataas ang risk. Basically yung A2 at A3. Hindi naman natin kailangang maabot yung herd immunity para masuyod lahat ng A2 at A3 sa Pilipinas.”

As long as the most vulnerable are reached, Dr. Ong-Lim believes that our health care system, even the economy, will remain resilient.

Moderator Malou Mangahas
  1. What can the government do to better handle its vaccine rollouts?

In the past week, there have been instances wherein misinformation regarding vaccination drives caused panic in cities like Manila, Quezon City, Caloocan and Las Piñas, leading to superspreader gatherings of those desperate to be vaccinated.

Dr. Sanicas shared that there are four A’s that should be considered in any medical intervention: affordability, acceptability, and accessibility. “For COVID vaccines, affordability is not an issue because it’s free. Acceptability, sort of okay, majority of our people still want to get the vaccine. For me, it’s availability and accessibility that we need to work on. We can increase the number of vaccination sites, increase the time we open these centers.”

Dr. Ong-Lim on the other hand offered a different take on the discussion. She said that strengthening information technology and telecommunication systems is something that the government has to look into because many of the processes involved in the rollouts are counterproductive.

“Unfortunately sa karamihan ng proseso natin, sulat kamay, papel, at lapis pa rin ‘yung ginagamit natin. At least medium term man lang, if we can come out of this pandemic with a better information technology and telecommunication system, ang laking bagay nun sa pandemic response. So even if we do not think about these as part of medical intervention, it is really the backbone of the entire pandemic response,” she suggested.

  1. If vaccination does not offer full protection, why do we still have to be vaccinated?

There are still those who have second thoughts on whether or not to get jabbed, mainly because these individuals think that vaccines do not make them fully protected. “There is reasonable data, both from the clinical trials as well as real-world data, which shows people who are vaccinated have a lower risk of getting severe or critical disease, or have a lower risk of death,” Dr. Ong-Lim assured the public.

She added that being vaccinated is also a way for us to protect our loved ones from the risk of being infected by COVID-19.