By Lauren Kaskey
Many of us have a list of the things we want to do as soon as this is all over. Maybe it’s hugging your grandchildren, maybe it’s that trip to Florida or maybe it’s an in-person church service or live concert. Life is about to get a lot more flexible for those of us who are rolling up our sleeves to get vaccinated, but there are still a variety of decisions that we all have to make -- especially before we reach vaccinated herd immunity.
2020 was a year of risk assessment, and we should expect to be navigating various levels of risk for the near future. The Centers for Disease Control has issued guidance for vaccinated people based on the most recent research that we have. Most of us have heard this guidance by now, but it bears repeating. To be considered fully vaccinated, you must be either:
- two weeks after the second dose in a two-dose vaccine series, like the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or
- two weeks after a single-dose vaccine, like Johnson and Johnson.
Once you are fully vaccinated, you can gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people without masks.
When we talk about gathering with nonvaccinated people, we need to assess the risk because we do not have clear evidence on whether vaccinated people can transmit COVID-19. While the only risk-free proposition is for vaccinated people to only spend time with other vaccinated people, this abstinence-only approach is not realistic. The CDC instructs us to evaluate the risk of the nonvaccinated household that a vaccinated person would like to visit. If those in the nonvaccinated household are low risk, then the vaccinated person can visit without the COVID-19 precautions that we’ve become accustomed to, such as masks and 6 feet of distance. If there is someone who is high-risk in the unvaccinated household -- even if that person is not present at the time of the visit -- the vaccinated person should continue to wear a mask and keep their distance, and visit outside if possible.
WHAT IS HERD IMMUNITY?
First, herd immunity must be reached through vaccinations, not exposure to the virus. We as a country have already seen over 542,000 deaths from this virus, each of those individuals with stories and people who loved them; and we are not even close to herd immunity. To reach herd immunity through exposure would be an untold level of illness and death, would overwhelm our hospitals and result in preventable deaths due to rationing of health care. Some immunity is built after surviving the virus but it is unclear how long it lasts, and although rare, re-infection is possible. Increased spread of the virus leads to new variants and vaccines may be less effective against these variants.
Herd immunity is reached when the appropriate number of people have been vaccinated to protect the small number of people who cannot be vaccinated based on medical conditions or other immutable reasons. For measles, herd immunity requires 95% vaccination rates. We don’t yet know how much of the population must be vaccinated, but especially while our children cannot be vaccinated, we need all of the adults who can to roll up their sleeves. While the wild strain of COVID-19 has a very low likelihood of making children very ill, until kids can be vaccinated, they may be able to spread the virus, and we need to worry about new strains that change that dynamic for the worse.
Although right now we are focusing on vaccination rates within our borders with increased travel we are reminded that a global pandemic does not have regard for political borders. Our future with COVID-19 depends on a global vaccination effort. Anywhere the virus propagates builds opportunities for new strains.
There is active research to understand some of the unknowns that limit freedom for people who have been vaccinated, and the vaccine manufacturers with currently approved vaccines have begun researching their use in children and babies. The supply of vaccine is increasing and investment in distribution infrastructure is increasing the rate of vaccination week-over-week. With the promise of a small BBQ with friends and family in July there is much to be hopeful for but until we have heard otherwise, we need to continue to wear a mask, keep our distance and wash our hands.
To ask questions about vaccines, herd immunity or other topical issues, please join MRVCares for our next COVID-19 panel discussion on April 1, 2021, at 8 p.m. Tune in to MRVTV or join us on Zoom: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/780179794.
Kaskey lives in Waitsfield and is a member of the MRVCares team.