As the state sees widespread transmission of the delta variant of COVID-19, some restrictions and recommendations to prevent the spread of the virus are being reinstated. But what is it about this particular variant of the coronavirus that’s causing this backtrack?

The delta variant, like other variants seen in 2021, is a mutation of COVID-19 that has developed over time. The delta variant is said by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be twice as contagious as previous variants, which has caused cases to increase both on a local and global scale. The Minnesota Department of Health said Friday that 95% of current cases in the state are the delta variant.

In the Northland, Itasca County has "high" community transmission rates, while St. Louis, Carlton, Lake, Douglas, Aitkin, Ashland and Bayfield counties have "substantial" community transmission. Koochiching and Cook counties have "moderate" transmission rates, according to CDC data.

Symptoms of the delta variant are largely the same as previous COVID-19 symptoms — but the time between exposure and symptom onset seems to be shorter now, and it takes less time for the virus' symptoms to become severe.

Christina Bastin de Jong, a critical care physician at Essentia in Duluth, said many people who are being admitted to the intensive care unit have only felt sick for three or four days before needing hospitalization, whereas previously, people usually felt sick for about a week before hospitalization.

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“It seems to be more aggressive, and that’s what’s been documented across the country, that it’s just a much more severe variant,” Bastin de Jong said.

She also said she’s seen COVID-19 patients with gastrointestinal symptoms more than with previous variants. The CDC reported that for people vaccinated against COVID-19 who contract the virus, known as breakthrough cases, symptoms often mimic those of the common cold.

While Minnesota has recorded more than 7,000 breakthrough cases as of Monday — accounting for 0.24% of the vaccinated population — those at the highest risk of being infected are people who have not received a COVID-19 vaccine.

“If we didn’t have a lot of people vaccinated, it would be so much worse right now, so that’s the thing that’s really keeping this in check,” said Andrew Thompson, an infectious disease specialist at St. Luke’s in Duluth.

Thompson said vaccinated people who are immunocompromised are at a higher risk because they aren’t able to build a strong immunity to the virus. The CDC and Food and Drug Administration began recommending third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines last week for people who are immunocompromised to help increase their immunity.

Children under age 12 are also at a high risk of contracting the delta variant. Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Friday that in Minnesota, more than 18% of cumulative cases fall in the pediatric age range of 0-19.

“When we think of our unvaccinated, it’s not just those who have chosen not to get a vaccine. People under the age of 12 can’t get one, and they’re at risk of getting infected as well,” Thompson said. “With a more contagious variant, we need to remember that there is still some risk and kids end up in the hospital and kids die. Fortunately not as often as older people, but it still happens.”

Several Duluth entities are again requiring or recommending masks to be worn in their buildings, including the city, St. Louis County and Duluth Public Schools — regardless of vaccination status.

Everyone is recommended by the CDC to wear face masks in public indoor spaces with substantial or high community transmission, as they have been proven to prevent the spread of the virus. The protective covering can catch contagious droplets leaving an infected person’s airways, and can also prevent other people from breathing those droplets in by blocking them.

Thompson said seeing variants of viruses is normal and expected, and we will continue to see mutations of the virus in the future. Delta just seems to be the most contagious strain we’ve seen so far.

“The key to ending this pandemic is for our community to have broad immunity and the safest and best way to do that is for everyone to get vaccinated,” he said. “I would plead with those who are not yet vaccinated to do it for your neighbors and your community as well as for yourself. It helps keep us all safer.”