With spring and summer came wide availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, followed by relaxed safety restrictions in public and outdoor spaces, plus the return of various events that were canceled last year. But as all the "Your fall plans" memes have implied, the newer, more contagious delta variant has come out to play, putting any returning sense of normalcy in question and leaving many people more concerned about their health and confused about whether or not they need to mask up again as infection rates have started to increase again — even among vaccinated people. So should we be worried about outdoor transmission of the delta variant as well? We asked two health experts break it down.
How transmissible is the delta variant in general?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, multiple studies have indicated that the delta variant is at least two times more transmissible than earlier virus strains, becoming the most widespread strain in the U.S., said Beth K. Thielen, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Minnesota.
"On average, a person infected with the initial virus infected two to three others, while a person with the delta variant is infecting five to six others, [showing that] the delta variant spreads much faster," explained Lisa M. Lee, Ph.D., associate vice president for research and innovation and a research professor of population health sciences at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
How transmissible is the Delta variant outdoors?
While outdoor activities were deemed to be generally safe last year, the Delta variant has unfortunately come to burst that bubble. Like the original virus, the Delta variant is also less likely to be transmitted outdoors, but it depends on the circumstances, Lee says.
"Simply put, when we are outside there is more air to disperse the virus and reduce its concentration," she explains. "However, if you are face to face with someone, breathing in the breath that they are exhaling—even if you are outside—you are at greater risk.”
It’s also important to continue to be mindful of maintaining adequate social distance, Lee says. For example, playing sports or exercising outdoors is much less likely to result in the spread of infection compared to, say, a crowded outdoor concert.
"If you are standing around a wide-open soccer field or walking in the same direction as others, the risk is much lower," she says. "[But] remember that when working out, we breathe more heavily, exhaling more air with more force, which means more virus in the air if you or your workout partner is infected."
What precautions should I take outside with the Delta variant?
Although a majority of indoor establishments relaxed mask requirements once more Americans began getting vaccinated, the CDC has reverted to recommending wearing masks indoors even if vaccinated in areas with substantial or high circulation, which is now most of the country, Dr. Thielen says. It also wouldn’t hurt to use your judgment when it comes to masking up outdoors if you’ll be around a lot of people.
"Given the cases of outdoors transmission that have occurred, it would also be wise to practice distancing outdoors as well and consider wearing a mask if not able to maintain 6 feet of distance," says Dr. Thielen.
Finally, if you haven’t yet, go get vaccinated
The FDA officially approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for those 16 and older, in addition to leaving emergency use authorization status for those 12 and under as of Aug. 23, so if this was fueling any hesitation, now is your shot to get your shot, which is very effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalization among those who’ve been vaccinated, says Dr. Thielen.
"This is the most important precaution you can take to protect yourself and those around you, as vaccinated people are about 25 times less likely to get sick if they get the Delta variant, in addition to being less likely to get infected at all," Lee adds. "If you live in an area with high rates of COVID-19 cases, layer your protection—start with a vaccine and add a mask and physical distance as you interact with others whose vaccination status is unknown and as the size of [any] crowd increases."