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The COVID-19 Delta variant has surged internationally. The U.S. may see regional case upticks where fewer people are vaccinated. Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

How worried should we be about the COVID-19 Delta variant?

Dylan Miettinen Jul 2, 2021
The COVID-19 Delta variant has surged internationally. The U.S. may see regional case upticks where fewer people are vaccinated. Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Health officials in Los Angeles County, the largest county in the United States with more than 10 million people, urged residents to voluntarily begin wearing masks again this week — vaccinated people included. 

The reason? The spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, which is on course to become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. Cases of the highly contagious variant have surged in places like India, Australia, Israel and South Korea.

As the U.S. economy begins to reopen, Marketplace asked experts the extent to which the Delta variant should be a cause for alarm.

Just how worried should we be about the Delta variant?

Dr. Vineet Menachery, a virologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch, said he is worried about the Delta variant — to a point.

“I think if you’re vaccinated, it’s unlikely that Delta variant will cause you to get sick. But there’s a chance that it can affect you,” he said. “Although we don’t have the data to really know if it’s going to cause worse disease, there’s pretty good evidence that it is more transmissible.”

So, for the 55% of Americans 18 and up who are fully immunized, concerns should be minimal. The three vaccines readily available to the U.S. market — Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Moderna — appear to offer protection against the Delta variant.

But risks aren’t completely eliminated for vaccinated people. What we may see, Menachery said, is a sort of patchwork of cases nationally. Areas with lower vaccination rates are likely to see an uptick in cases, in turn giving the variant a chance to evolve. 

What’s the likelihood of additional lockdowns, mask mandates or social distancing requirements?

At a federal or even state level, Menachery said, any renewal of restrictions is highly unlikely. At current vaccination rates, restrictions probably wouldn’t be necessary at such large scales.

What’s more likely is a requirement for mask-wearing or social distancing at the local level, said John Ricco, associate director of policy analysis at the Penn Wharton Budget Model, a research initiative analyzing public policy’s fiscal impact. 

“I think as the pandemic has gone on, we started out in the place where there was a lot of uniformity across communities; it was a more, like, national response,” Ricco said. “And as time went on, restrictions, personal behavior, all of that became more tied to local policymaking and local COVID conditions.”

Businesses could also have a say, requiring masks to be worn by vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike. Enforcement of those requirements, though, is easier said than done.

So what economic impact could the Delta variant have?

Right now, there’s little expectation that the U.S. economy will grind to a halt as it did in March of 2020 as a result of this variant, Ricco said. But the variant is something economists have their eyes on. 

What would more realistically occur is a stalling of the economic recovery of the past couple of months, said Erica Groshen, senior economics advisor at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. 

“We could foresee a little bit of slowing of getting back to our pre-pandemic level of economic activity and employment,” she said. “But to the extent that a variant would really put downward pressure on those economic indicators, it would require a variant that is a breakthrough in a significant way, one more resistant to mRNA vaccines.” 

Much like a potential patchwork of outbreaks, there could also be regional differences in how the U.S. responds to the spreading of a variant. 

“It’s totally plausible that regional economic growth in these areas [experiencing COVID surges] can fall. The one caveat here is that there are plenty of communities where vaccine takeup remains quite low, and these places do remain at high risk for outbreaks,” Ricco said.

The opposite is also possible, said Greg Acs with the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy think tank. Areas that weren’t “afraid” of COVID-19 at the outset of the pandemic and now have low vaccine rates could just continue with back-to-normal business habits. And, as unemployment benefits are cut around the U.S., that may be less of a choice and more of a need.

What concerns Ricco most is the potential impact that any virus surge could have on schools. With American children under 12 still ineligible for vaccines, the closure of in-person schooling or childcare could be a serious issue for parents as they try to re-enter the workforce.

What about the impact on the global economy?

The Delta variant is taking its toll internationally. International travel, still limited by country and only recently reopened for Americans, could take yet another hit. And one of the biggest points of concern for economists? It’s the economic buzzword of the moment: supply chains. 

Supply chains for the U.S. are not as diversified or resilient as they need to be, Groshen said, and they’re also not something that can change overnight. 

“If there are large disruptions in other countries, that could affect our ability to get supplies we need for domestic production and also affect our export markets,” Acs said in an email. “Shortages in supplies could contribute to inflation, but a decrease in export demand would be an offsetting factor.” 

What about the long-term consequences of this variant and others?

The Delta variant and others are likely to have a long-term impact on the U.S. economy — especially as the pandemic drags on.

“We cannot fully recover from the effects of the pandemic before the pandemic is over,” Groshen said.

She added that the pandemic has highlighted the need to fund statistical agencies, like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, to make smarter projections and more effectively tailor economic and public policy. 

Another potential long-term impact, Ricco said, could be prolonged and continued discussion about stimulus checks, unemployment benefits and workers’ rights.

Just how easy is it to predict the economic impact of the Delta variant?

The experts interviewed said their predictions were informed by past economic trends, with the caveat that this kind of forecasting is an imperfect science. 

“Should we be worried? I’m always worried, but there are too many unknowns for those worries to really crystallize yet,” Acs said in an email. “In the meantime, I won’t waste an opportunity to enjoy an IPA at my local beer garden.”

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