Unvaccinated people are 4.4 times (or 440%) more likely to be infected with COVID-19 than vaccinated people, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services said in its August report.

Dr. David Priest smiles for a photo.
Dr. David Priest

That’s attributed to the infectious Delta variant that can make even “young, healthy people very sick, to the point where they need to be hospitalized and sometimes require life support,” said Dr. David Priest, Novant Health chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer.

Early in the pandemic, the typical COVID patient might infect two or three people around them. But with the Delta variant, they're likely to infect five to nine individuals around them today. It’s just the latest example of how a dangerous virus can become even more deadly as it mutates.

New variants could become ‘even more dangerous’

For the time being, there will likely always be another variant on the horizon, Priest said, with early conflicting data about how effective the current vaccine will be. But instead of focusing on the next variant and what it might mean, he said the important thing to do is simply to get vaccinated.

“This is why we need to get as many Americans, and people around the world, vaccinated as soon as possible. The fewer people who get COVID, the less likely we’ll see new variations that could become even more dangerous than what we’re dealing with now,” Priest said. “As we’ve learned throughout the pandemic, this virus has a way of surprising us. We can’t continue to drag this out.”

When someone gets COVID, the virus replicates in the body. Every time the virus replicates, there’s a chance for small mistakes or changes in the genetic code to occur, which Priest explained is how different variants emerge – including Lambda and C.1.2, which originated in South Africa.

A Black women gets the first dose of her COVID vaccine.

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What’s most important now is getting control of COVID before it mutates into something that requires a new vaccine, he added.

Unvaccinated people are twice as likely to be reinfected with COVID

People with a previous COVID infection should still get vaccinated, Priest said. “While having had COVID offers some protection at first, the struggle with natural immunity is that everyone's different, right? How old you are, what other health problems you have, what medications you take, and frankly, how big a dose of COVID you got when you were infected. And so, some people will get infected and have very mild symptoms. They tend to have milder immune responses and their protection probably doesn't last very long. What we know about vaccination is that it gives you a more even and predictable immune response.”

In fact, studies show unvaccinated people are twice as likely to be reinfected with COVID than those who were fully vaccinated after initially contracting the virus, he said.

“I think the message is, if you’ve had COVID, your immune response is not as predictable as if you’ve been vaccinated. You are still at risk for getting it again. If you want to avoid that, get vaccinated.”

‘Don’t wait until it’s too late’

The vaccine remains incredibly effective at keeping people out of the hospital. Over 99% of those who are vaccinated have not had a breakthrough case resulting in hospitalization or death.

Not only does it protect that person, it protects those around us who are not yet eligible (kids under 12), and those with compromised immune systems who need further protection.

Not getting the shot means you’ll be putting the “vaccinated vulnerable” at greater risk, Priest added. Those are often older people and others who got the vaccine early because of other health problems, and now could be more at risk for breakthrough infections while they wait to get their third dose.

“If you are not vaccinated, please don’t wait until it’s too late,” he said.