I hope you are having a productive summer and are enjoying today’s beautiful weather. We have been fortunate to be spared the drought and wildfires out west and the horrific flooding in Europe and Asia, but alas there are other issues…
I am compelled to write given the rapid resurgence of COVID-19 cases across the world, the US, NYC and at Rockefeller over the last month. This has been driven by the dramatic increase in the prevalence of the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which now accounts for ~83% of all new cases in the US. The Delta variant has been shown to be much more infectious than its predecessors–it appears to replicate more rapidly, producing more virus, which increases the likelihood of transmission. It does not appear to cause more severe disease than other variants. Importantly, real-world data indicates that vaccines remain highly effective in preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19. For example, the CDC reports that 97% of hospitalizations and >99% of deaths from COVID are in the unvaccinated population, with similar results reported from the UK and Israel. Though not thoroughly studied, there are suggestions that the vaccines are not highly protective against primary infection from Delta, but they generally allow only asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic infections.
When I last wrote on June 25, the average number of new cases diagnosed in the US per day was 11,300; yesterday that number was 45,300 and is increasing on a daily basis. This trend has been paralleled in NYC: from NY State data, while there was a seven-day average of 171 cases per day in NYC a month ago, yesterday’s average was 706 new cases and rising daily. While this number is not near the peak we saw in January, and is not as bad as many other parts of the country, the steep upward trend in cases suggests conditions will continue to worsen. If there is good news, it’s that hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 continue to stay low, likely reflecting higher vaccination rates in the elderly and a preponderance of infection in younger people. On campus, we had no new cases since May 5 until an asymptomatic, fully vaccinated person was diagnosed by routine weekly testing on July 14. Partial sequencing of this virus identified one of the characteristic mutations of the Delta lineage, P681R. On July 18 and 19, two fully vaccinated people in the same department who had been in a maskless meeting comprising only vaccinated people became mildly symptomatic and tested positive; no other department members or contacts of these individuals have tested positive. And yesterday another asymptomatic vaccinated person tested positive on routine weekly testing. Viral sequencing of these latter patients is pending. Fortunately, all of these vaccinated individuals have had mild courses of infection.
With four cases on campus in the last 10 days after none in the previous 71 days, it is clear that our environment, like the rest of NYC, is changing rapidly, and the likelihood of being exposed to the virus and becoming infected is increasing. While the risk of infection is lower for vaccinated individuals, and the risk of serious infection resulting in hospitalization or death is vastly lower for vaccinated individuals, the risk is not zero. Consequently, I am writing to highlight the occurrence of cases on campus, and to encourage everyone to take appropriate precautions.
To mitigate risk, everyone who is eligible should be vaccinated unless there are compelling reasons not to; vaccines are readily available on campus and in the community. With all the safety and efficacy data in hand, and the growing risk, why would anyone wait further? In addition, when indoors with individuals who are unvaccinated or of unknown vaccination status, there’s growing consensus that risk should be minimized by wearing masks, maintaining distance, and washing hands. I personally have been wearing a mask in these situations and strongly encourage it. While we don’t have good data on the risk of infection among groups of fully vaccinated people meeting indoors, risk increases with the prevalence of infection in the population, the size of the group, and the level of ventilation in the space. Next week, the Research Restart Committee will be considering whether to make masks mandatory for all indoor meetings, as well as other steps to reduce risk of infection on campus.
I’ll also take this opportunity to remind everyone of the mandatory daily self-health attestations for all individuals are coming to campus, which are most conveniently submitted via RU Healthy. The RU Strong SARS-CoV-2 testing program remains an invaluable element of our safe operations and weekly tests remain mandatory for on-campus personnel. Both of these policies apply to everyone regardless of vaccination status. Finally, people who are not fully vaccinated are required to wear face masks and maintain social distancing at all times, indoors and outdoors, while on-campus. These practices contribute to keeping our community and our loved ones safe; I remain grateful for everyone’s compliance.
Lastly, on a very positive note, I want to highlight the big heart and community spirit of our colleague Sharisse Brown in the Housing Office. She and her sister direct a foundation called the Ang-Jul Project (pronounced Angel, named after their late mother) which for many years has sponsored community outreach programs for struggling families and their children. One of these is the annual Backpack Project, which aims to help get kids get ready and excited about the start of the new school year by providing them with backpacks and school supplies. If you would like to contribute to this year’s effort, please see her posting in the Classifieds here.
Please continue to enjoy the summer, stay safe, and take care of one another.
With best wishes,
Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics
The Rockefeller University