U.S. Health Secretary Says Unvaccinated People Are 'Vulnerable' to Highly Contagious Delta Variant

"There is evidence that it might be more virulent, which means it makes people sicker and can lead to more hospitalizations," Dr. Rachel Levine tells PEOPLE

Rachel Levine
Dr. Rachel Levine. Photo: Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News via AP

With the Delta variant now accounting for about 10% of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S., the Centers of Disease Control officially said Tuesday that it's a "variant of concern." That's because the strain is proving to be particularly infectious and potentially more severe, says Dr. Rachel Levine, the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health.

"There is evidence that it is more transmissible than the original virus and other variants, and there is evidence that it might be more virulent, which means it makes people sicker and can lead to more hospitalizations," Levine tells PEOPLE.

The variant, which was first found in India, could become the dominant strain in the U.S. in the next few months. But it could be slowed if more Americans step up and get vaccinated, Levine says.

"The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have been shown to be effective in preventing the Delta variant, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is being studied as we speak, but there's every reason to think that it'll be effective," she says. "So states and counties and communities that are more immunized should be protected from a significant community spread of this variant. But states and counties and communities that have very low immunization rates are vulnerable to spread of this variant. And it is something that we're concerned about."

As the deadline for President Joe Biden's goal of getting 70% of Americans at least one dose of a vaccine by July 4 grows nearer, Levine and other members of the administration are working to encourage vaccinations. She notes that people can now get vaccinated at barber shops, baseball games and NASCAR races, or they can find a site within five miles of their home by going to Vaccines.gov.

"We're really trying to make it as easy as possible for people to get these very safe, very effective and very important vaccines," she says.

She also notes that fully vaccinated people can feel assured that the vaccine is effective against the variant, and they can "pretty much live their lives and don't have to limit themselves."

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And for those who are still hesitant, Levine advises that they talk to trusted health care providers or family members, and consider that "over 310 million doses of these vaccines have been given in the United States, and countless millions more have been given internationally."

"So these vaccines are safe, they are effective, and especially with this new Delta variant, they're very important."

Levine urges people to recognize that "the virus has shown us that we are all interconnected."

"It's so important to protect yourself, your family, your community and our country by getting vaccinated," she said. "This is how our country moves forward. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but our ticket is these vaccines to have a much more normal life where people can go without masks and be free to socialize this summer with their loved ones. But to do that without having the vaccinations makes people vulnerable."

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