COVID-19: Infection Spikes, Vaccine Rates, and Variants, Explained

Published on: Jul 8, 2021fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
Woman receives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.Getty Images

More than 67% of all US adults have gotten at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. And while Americans have started to go back to pre-pandemic life, the virus is still a problem. Vaccination rates are lagging across the country, and COVID-19 cases are ticking up in a number of states – largely among those who are unvaccinated.

Why’s that?

COVID-19 variants. Let’s back up: variants happen when a virus’s genes change or mutate. The word ‘mutate’ might sound scary, but it’s actually normal. As the virus spreads, it makes copies of itself. And sometimes, not all of the same instructions make it into the new copy. So it becomes a different version (aka a new strain or variant). Typically mutations aren’t a big deal because they don’t always change how a virus behaves.

Now, experts around the globe are keeping a close eye on the delta variant (aka B1617). First detected in October in India, this variant contributed to the devastating surge of infections there earlier this year. The World Health Organization has called it “the most transmissible of the variants identified so far.” And it’s been found in at least 92 countries. The CDC has labeled it a “variant of concern” and estimates that it’s now the dominant strain in the US, making up nearly 52% of COVID-19 cases.

But that’s not all: scientists have also discovered a variant dubbed “delta plus.” It was first detected earlier this year and is slightly different from the delta variant. The CDC hasn’t labeled it a “variant of concern,” but it has been discovered in about a dozen countries, including the US and the UK. It’s unclear at this point whether it’s more transmissible than other strains of the virus.

The good news? Experts say that the vaccines available in the US are believed to be highly effective against the delta variant. Important, because Dr. Anthony Fauci said that 99% of the people who died from COVID-19 in June were unvaccinated. After missing his July 4 goal of getting 70% of American adults at least partially vaccinated, President Biden has announced measures to get more people inoculated, including door-to-door outreach programs, making vaccines available at workplaces, encouraging employers to offer PTO for employees to get a shot, and stepping up efforts to get vaccines to pediatricians to provide shots to those 12-18 years old.

You said variants, as in plural. What else is out there?

The CDC considered a few variants those “of concern.” Including…

  • Alpha. Aka B117. It was first detected in September in the UK. It’s spread to 173 countries (according to the World Health Organization), and was previously the dominant strain in the US in the spring. It’s believed to be about 50% more contagious. Scientists initially thought it could be more deadly, but a study shows that it’s not likely to cause more serious illness or death. Experts say that the vaccines currently available seem to offer good protection against the alpha variant.

  • Beta. Aka B1351. It first emerged in October in South Africa, and the WHO says it’s spread to at least 122 countries. It’s been found to be more transmissible, and there are concerns that vaccines may not be as effective when it comes to this variant. In April, researchers in Israel found that it could break through the Pfizer vaccine – which is 95% effective. And there’s some evidence that it may be able to reinfect people who’ve already had COVID-19.

  • Gamma. Aka P1. This variant was detected in January after four travelers went from Brazil to Japan. The WHO says it’s been found in more than 74 countries. It helped fuel a surge of cases in Brazil, and quickly spread to other areas of South America. The variant is believed to be more contagious and data shows it’s more likely to reinfect people.


The US is in a critical period of combating the coronavirus. The gov is dealing with declining vaccination rates and dangerous variants. And as scientists continue to detect new variants and learn more about existing ones, it’s still as important as ever to keep practicing the basics if you’re not vaccinated. And for those that are, it’s important to keep up with the latest guidelines here.

Last updated on July 8 – Updated to include the latest information on the variants.

Skimm'd by Maria Martinolich and Kamini Ramdeen

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