COVID-19 Variants: What You Need to Know

August 18, 2021

novel coronavirus covid 19 variants

For weeks now, a big topic of conversation surrounding the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been the variants of the original virus that causes COVID-19 – specifically:

  • What are variants?
  • What do variants mean if we've been fully vaccinated?
  • What do variants mean for wearing masks?

Here is everything that is important to know right now about variants.

What is a Variant Virus?

Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus, like COVID-19, are expected to occur. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants persist. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and globally during this pandemic.

What COVID-19 Variants Are There and How Contagious Are Variants?

Some variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19, which could possibly lead to more hospitalizations and potentially more deaths. Currently, there are four variants of concern in the United States. The Delta variant is clearly dominating – it now accounts for more than 83 percent of new coronavirus cases in the United States. It was first detected in the United States in March 2021. It was initially identified in India in December 2020. 

The Delta variant is more than two times as contagious as the original strain of the coronavirus. It is not clear whether it produces more severe disease. Other variants identified by the Centers for Disease Control accounting for fewer than one percent of U.S. cases include Alpha, Beta and Gamma variants. The Delta variant continues to be the central concern for public health officials.

In this continuously updated video playlist, Dr. Price and other Denver Health experts explain in detail why COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.

Do Masks and Vaccines Protect Against Variants?

So far, studies suggest that the current authorized vaccines work very well in preventing severe disease and hospitalizations due to these circulating variants, but it may be more important than ever to ensure you are fully vaccinated (two doses of Pfizer or Moderna or one dose of Johnson & Johnson) to prevent infection. 

The variants may be able to cause some breakthrough infections (usually mild) in vaccinated people who then can spread it to unvaccinated people. For that reason, some health officials recommend that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors.

Schedule your appointment to get the COVID-19 vaccine of your choice today.

Connie Savor Price, M.D. is Denver Health's chief medical officer and an expert infectious disease physician.