JRAN Conversation Starter: The Delta Strain

(August 5, 2021) –JHV article: We need to get children back to school. To do that safely, we need to vaccinate everyone around them. And, whether at school or shul, everybody should wear a comfortable, well-fitting mask when indoors.

These were the most important takeaways from two panelists at “Delta Strain: What it Means for Back to School and High Holidays,” a community webinar.

Dr. Ed Septimus and Dr. Flor Muñoz addressed the rise in COVID-19 cases, due to the Delta variant, at JRAN’s 11th Conversation Starter on Aug. 3. The webinar was attended by more than 500 people, with some 130 questions submitted by members of the Houston community prior to the webinar.

Dr. Muñoz is associate professor of Pediatrics and Infectious Diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, and director of Transplant Infectious Diseases at Texas Children’s Hospital. Dr. Septimus is an often-quoted infectious disease physician, epidemiologist and professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.

Most local school districts are set to begin the fall semester within the next three weeks. Rosh Hashanah will begin on the evening of Monday, Sept. 6.

Dr. Septimus reminded attendees that although there has been a growth in the number of COVID-19 cases, vaccines have been effective in preventing severe complications, including hospitalization and death.

“The Delta strain is more transmissible than the Alpha strain,” Dr. Septimus said. “It has a higher viral load. But, if you’re fully vaccinated, there’s a shorter duration of viral shedding. Over 90% of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, and over 99% of the deaths are from unvaccinated people.

“We’ve unmasked and disregarded social distancing, which have increased the level of transmissibility. But, if you look at the studies, vaccines are highly effective at reducing the seriousness of disease.”

Dr. Septimus noted the July 27 change in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policy that once again is recommending some Americans wear masks indoors. The agency called for masks in kindergarten through 12th grade settings and in areas of the United States experiencing high COVID transmission, even for the fully vaccinated.

Due to the large number of people expected at High Holy Days services and the length of the services, “a very high level of transmission is possible,” Dr. Septimus said.

Factors affecting transmission rates include how much time people are going to spend together; whether those people are vaccinated; whether the service is well-ventilated or outdoors.

He reported no synagogue in Houston has required proof of vaccinations to attend services.

“I expect the number of people attending services will be less, especially where virtual services are an option. I would recommend universal masking for the High Holy Days,” he said.

Unlike last year, synagogues do not need to disinfect prayerbooks.

Responding to a question about blowing the shofar, Dr. Septimus responded that “short of mapping aerosols,” it’s prudent to maintain a social distance between the shofar blower and members of the congregation.

Dr. Muñoz prefaced her remarks by noting COVID is a global problem, and the pandemic can affect children.

“The vaccination of children is not a viable option in many parts of world,” she said.

“In 12- to 15-year-olds, we use the same vaccines we give to adults. We’ve seen that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are safe and effective. For lower ages, studies are still in progress.”

Currently in the U.S., pediatric cases represent 14.2% of total COVID cases. Pediatric hospitalizations comprise 1% to 2% of the total COVID hospitalizations.

“We’ve learned that we need to get children back to school,” said Dr. Muñoz. “To do that safely, we must have universal masking for all kids, staff and teachers. Masking, plus social distancing and hand washing.”

Dr. Muñoz said those in the medical field are still learning about the long-term protection of various vaccines. She referred to ongoing studies in Europe in real-time, but noted there were no recommendations yet.

Her recommendations for kids in schools:
• Protect unvaccinated children by vaccinating everyone around them.
• Masking is critical.
• Everyone needs to wear a comfortable, properly fitted mask.
• Keep kids home if they are sick.

“I’ve learned that kids are enormously resilient,” said Dr. Muñoz. “Wearing a mask and good hand hygiene are habit issues. Children will tend to follow the habits of those around them.

“We must be more mindful of the well-being of the people around us.”