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COVID, Delta variant questions answered | Why vaccinated people can still get sick, how to maximize protection, when to mask

With Georgia's recent surge in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, largely due to the widespread Delta variant, 11Alive is here to help answer questions.

ATLANTA — For a brief moment, it seemed like things were starting to go back to normal -- or the "new normal" -- as some would say. Then came a recent surge in new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, mostly due to the highly contagious Delta variant as vaccination rates in the U.S. are unable to catch up to the speed of the virus spread. 

Georgia is among the states experiencing COVID outbreaks, with a rising number of cases reported among adults as well as children. The state is also lagging behind most regions when it comes to the number of people who have been vaccinated. 

There have been a lot of questions surrounding the Delta variant, recent outbreaks and what people can do to better protect themselves and their loved ones: What are the latest CDC guidelines for fully vaccinated people? Should I mask if I'm fully vaccinated? Where can I get tested in metro Atlanta and Georgia? Is it legal for employers and businesses to ask for proof of vaccination?

11Alive is here to help navigate these turbulent times. We are answering some of the most frequently asked questions and verifying whether some of the viral claims you're seeing on social media are true or false, based on information provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO) and state health officials, latest scientific research as well as advice from medical experts.

Can I get sick from COVID or the Delta variant if I'm fully vaccinated?

Yes. New CDC research shows that vaccinated people can become infected if exposed to the coronavirus. They can also carry high levels of the virus, potentially spreading COVID-19 to others. However, it's important to note that these "breakthrough" cases are rare. 

Unvaccinated people still make up the vast majority of new COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths. An estimated 97 percent of COVID-infected patients who end up in the hospitals are unvaccinated, according to health officials.

Read this 11Alive story to find more questions and answers related to the transmissibility of COVID-19 and its highly contagious Delta variant.

But why? Aren't COVID vaccines supposed to protect me from contracting the virus?

Vaccines are never meant to be foolproof. No vaccine is 100 percent effective at preventing one from contracting a virus -- the same is true when it comes to COVID vaccines.

However, vaccines are highly effective at significantly reducing the danger of one being hospitalized or dying from the coronavirus. And as mentioned above, being fully vaccinated also largely decreases the chance you will transmit the disease to others if you become infected.

How do I know if I have the Delta variant?

The short answer is -- you won’t. The CDC takes a random sample of COVID tests each week to analyze the spread of different virus strains. The Georgia Department of Public Health tells 11Alive that the Delta variant currently makes up about 78 percent of all cases across the state.

Why is the Delta variant more contagious?

The short answer is -- mutations. The coronavirus has been studying our bodies as it evolves. Therefore, the Delta variant has learned better ways to multiply and spread than when the virus first emerged at the start of the pandemic. 

Check out these two stories to find out more:

How is the Delta variant impacting children? Is it more dangerous for kids?

Yes, there is a spike in COVID-19 cases among children. However, data continues to show that it is rare for kids who've contracted the virus to be hospitalized or die from it. Experts say there isn't enough information yet to determine whether the Delta variant is more dangerous to children. Read more.

But with kids back in school and COVID vaccines not yet available to children under 12, schools can be at a higher risk for transmissions. Therefore, the CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.

I'm fully vaccinated. Should I wear a mask? How can I protect myself and loved ones from the Delta variant?

Yes, you should "continue to wear a mask where required by laws, rules, regulations or local guidance," according to the CDC. 

And if you are in what the CDC calls "an area of substantial or high transmission," which includes almost all of Georgia, you should wear a mask in public indoor settings in order to maximize protection from the Delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others.

The CDC also says that you may choose to wear a mask if you are immunocompromised or at increased risk for severe disease, or if someone in your household falls under those categories or isn't fully vaccinated.

Should fully vaccinated people get tested for COVID?

Yes. The recently updated CDC guidelines recommend that if you come into close contact with "someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19," you should get tested three to five days after exposure and wear a mask indoor while in public for 14 days or until you receive a negative test result.

Where can I get tested for COVID in metro Atlanta and Georgia?

You can get tested for free with or without insurance at a public or commercial testing site near you, select pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens or your doctor's office.

Where can I get vaccinated?

Health experts recommend anyone who's eligible to get vaccinated against COVID. We've compiled a list of public vaccination sites here. You can also visit pharmacies that are administering the shots or a doctor's office.

RELATED: LIST | Where public vaccine sites are still active around Atlanta

Can employers require employees to get vaccinated against COVID? What about businesses? Can they require patrons to provide proof of vaccination in order to receive service?

Yes, they can ask for proof of vaccination, without violating your HIPAA rights, but it's more complicated than that. 

A decision from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled that all private employers can legally order their employees to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 unless the worker has a religious or medical exemption. And in June, a federal court ruling upheld that decision. 

Legal expert Page Pate said employers and businesses cannot discriminate against you based on race, sex, religion and medical disability, but vaccinations are not on that list. 

However, whether an employer may require or mandate COVID-19 vaccination is also "a matter of state or other applicable law," according to the CDC. And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says you're not obligated to say you're vaccinated or not.

Right now, Georgia does not have a government vaccine mandate. The state law, however, empowers the health department to issue a vaccine mandate. If that happens during a pandemic, only medical exemptions will be allowed, and it will require a note from a doctor to get you the exemption in that case.

Visit the 11Alive COVID-19 vaccine access section for more resources and information.

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