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Rutgers experts address potential concerns about delta variant, breakthrough cases

Rutgers experts said the University community is less at risk from the delta variant due to high levels of vaccine compliance, though a booster shot may become necessary. – Photo by

As of August, the delta variant accounts for 83 percent of all coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in the U.S. Three Rutgers experts discussed the risk the variant poses to the Rutgers community, how much weight to put on recent “breakthrough cases” and what measures to take against it.

Reynold Panettieri, vice chancellor for Translational Medicine and Science at Rutgers, said the delta variant is particularly dangerous for those who are unvaccinated, among other at-risk groups.

“It can pose a challenge even for the vaccinated without adequate immunoprotection,” Panettieri said. “The immunocompromised, the very young and the very old, are going to be the most susceptible. Even in the case of the very old, the vaccine may not produce enough immunity and make them more susceptible to infection.”

While the Rutgers community may be more at-risk from the delta variant compared to the original, Donald Schaffner, a distinguished professor in the Department of Food Science, said the level of vaccine compliance among students, faculty and staff combined with University policies such as masking are encouraging.

Rutgers is one of the highest vaccinated populations in the state as well as the country, making the community less vulnerable than others outside of the unvaccinated, said Mary O’Dowd, executive director of Health Systems and Population Health Integration for Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences.

The University’s vaccine mandate has led to a 99.5 percent compliance rate among students, and 82 percent of faculty and staff have been vaccinated as of two weeks ago, The Daily Targum previously reported.

“The vaccine continues to prove that it is very safe, and importantly, it remains highly effective in preventing the most severe forms of … illness and death,” O’Dowd said.

Though, she said recent breakthrough cases have confirmed that the vaccine cannot prevent illness entirely. She said booster shots may become necessary to compensate for immunity from vaccines waning over time.

There has been rising evidence that COVID-19 vaccines begin to lose effectiveness in approximately six months, Schaffner said. But he said the breakthrough cases must be put in proper context amid discussion of the vaccine’s effectiveness.

“Many vaccines are not perfect, including the annual flu vaccine,” Schaffner said. “These breakthrough cases do point out that while the vaccine is very helpful, it is not magic and we continue to need to take additional measures.”

All three faculty members said people should continue to follow standard COVID-19 measures such as masking and social distancing. People may also consider staying outdoors whenever possible and getting a booster shot when it becomes available.

“Living with (COVID-19) is not easy, and I share your concerns,” O’Dowd said. “But at the same time, we need to also consider the mental and emotional health consequences of the pandemic and try to move forward as safely as possible, recognizing that nothing is 100 percent.”

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