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UB scientists: Virtually all WNY COVID-19 infections are delta variant

'People infected with the delta variant are shedding about 1,000 times the viral load that people infected with earlier variants were shedding,' Surtees said.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Nearly all Western New Yorkers who test positive for COVID-19 have the delta variant, according to University at Buffalo scientists.

UB researchers do not find the conclusion surprising based on the prevalence of the variant nationwide. However, the rate at which the new variant has become the dominant strand is concerning, according to Jennifer Surtees, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry at UB and co-director of the Genome, Environment and Microbiome Community of Excellence. 

UB has been conducting genomic sequencing of COVID-19 samples and is currently the sole source of this testing in Western New York. 

While the area's relatively high vaccination rate have helped slow the delta variant, it still is affecting the community. 

"This is a very transmissible version of SARS-CoV-2, it results in high viral loads which means it is much easier to pass, to shed that virus, to pass that virus on to other people," Surtees said.

“The delta variant’s overwhelming prevalence in our area helps to explain the recent, exponential increase in COVID-19 cases and COVID-19-related hospitalizations," said Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County Commissioner of Health and associate professor at UB. 

"I recommend that anyone who has not received the COVID-19 vaccine to get vaccinated. This will protect you, your family, and our community.”

The speed that the delta variant has become the dominant strain in the community shows how much of a threat it poses, according to Surtees.

"It’s the same virus, but it’s a more robust version. This is how evolution works, and it’s happening so quickly because people are continuing to be infected," Surtees said.

The one other case seen was the B.1.621 variant, which was first seen in Colombia. B.1.621 now represents 10% of cases in South Florida. Little research on the new variant are complete, but Surtees said it has mutations that are concerning.

The number of sample tested in early July was same, but Surtees expects to sequence 100 more samples next week. She expects the prevalence of delta variant to remain high. 

Surtees mentioned how the delta variant was known to pose a significant threat when reports for the United Kingdom indicated that a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine were not enough to protect people from getting sick.

People who are fully vaccinated, however, are protected from severe illness and hospitalization.

“People infected with the delta variant are shedding about 1,000 times the viral load that people infected with earlier variants were shedding,” Surtees said.

Surtees added that because of how transmissible the delta variant is, it is still important to wear masks, social distance, wash hands, get tested if you are symptomatic, and avoid large gatherings.

As information and knowledge of the virus is changing, Surtees says we need to continue evolving our thinking.

"When we get new information and new guidance based on that new information, that’s not flip flopping, it’s not necessarily that we were wrong, it’s that the situation has changed, we have learned more and we need to adapt our policies and behaviors,” Surtees said.

Surtees recommends everyone who is eligible to get the vaccine if they can to protect themselves and others in the community who cannot get the vaccine.