By Mike DuBose
If you’re one of the more than 56% of American adults who has received your first COVID-19 shot, congratulations! You have seen through the misinformation and conspiracy theories and have made a wise decision to protect your health…and, equally importantly, that of others. However, even if you’re now fully vaccinated—as 41% of Americans aged 18 or older are, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—there are still some precautions you need to take. Although the vaccines are highly effective in preventing COVID-19, they are not completely foolproof, and infections can still occur even after you are vaccinated!
Many individuals are under the false impression that, once they have received their shots, they can return to “normal” life as it was before the coronavirus pandemic. It’s true that both the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are extremely useful—according to a recently published CDC study, they are 90% effective at preventing COVID-19 infection in fully vaccinated individuals—but there still exists a 10% chance of being one of the unfortunate few who comes down with COVID-19 even when vaccinated. As of mid-April 2021, approximately 5,800 infections in fully vaccinated Americans had been reported. Seventy-four of these vaccinated people (40% of whom were 60 years of age or older) passed away from the illness. Sadly, a friend of mine, Dr. Cary Washington of Columbia, SC, was one of those who died of COVID even after being fully vaccinated.
The vaccines we have today were created with the original COVID-19 virus in mind, but variants have developed since the initial outbreak that may not be as well-controlled with our current vaccine options. Although dozens of COVID-19 variants have been identified so far, the CDC is focusing particularly on tracking five “variants of concern” (VOCs): one that originated in the United Kingdom (UK); one from Brazil; one from South Africa; and two from California. The UK variant, also called B.1.1.7, is currently the most prevalent VOC in the US. It is highly contagious and, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal in March 2021, is associated with a 64% higher risk of death than the original strains! Fortunately, all major vaccines being administered in the US, including the popular Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, have been shown to be effective against B.1.1.7 in several studies, as Tara Parker-Pope reported in an April 2021 New York Times article.
Concerns have also been raised about the Brazilian and South African variants; particularly, that mutations featured by B.1.351 (the South African variant) may allow it to evade or breakthrough some antibodies. However, even if our current vaccines are less effective against some variants than the initial version of the virus, they still provide very useful protection. As Parker-Pope noted, studies have shown that the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines “could reduce risk of infection against the [B.1.351] variant by about 60 percent to 70 percent and still are highly effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalization.”
Because COVID-19 is still a relatively new virus, much remains to be learned. Although the vaccines provide significant protection, some risks remain. Therefore, public health experts recommend that vaccinated individuals continue to practice safety precautions, including:
- Avoid crowded, enclosed spaces. Places where people gather indoors, such as restaurants, bars, gyms, churches, and hotels, are more likely places for virus exposure (or one of its variants). One study by a Stanford University computer scientist in November 2020 found that 80% of COVID-19 infections occurred in indoor businesses, with restaurants being the riskiest. Stay away from crowded indoor areas, especially restaurants, although you can enjoy outdoor dining as long as you socially distance from others.
- Keep wearing your mask (in most cases). In late April 2021, the CDC released modified guidelines on mask-wearing for fully vaccinated individuals. These guidelines relax restrictions on wearing masks when visiting indoors with other fully vaccinated people or participating in outdoor activities. However, they still recommend wearing masks in indoor public settings and when visiting unvaccinated people, or if you’re in a crowded outdoor setting. In some cases, vaccinated folks can inadvertently still pass the virus on to others! Heated breath is still the primary way that the coronavirus spreads, and it can remain in the air for hours. Therefore, you should continue to wear a mask when visiting grocery stores and other public places.
- Socialize in smart ways. Continue limiting the size of gatherings at your home—even if everyone in attendance says they’ve been fully vaccinated. (Note that it may take up to two weeks after your final dose for the two-shot vaccines to provide you with full protection.) If you have people over, it’s a good idea to visit with them outside rather than indoors.
- Travel wisely. Try to avoid air travel if at all possible. Planes have filtration systems for bringing in fresh air and they sanitize the seats in between passengers, but you could still come into contact with someone who is infected but not showing symptoms! If you must travel by plane, board last and avoid removing your mask to eat or drink until the plane is airborne (which is when filtration systems take full effect).
- Be cautious, but not paranoid. All of this being said, being fully vaccinated does provide you with increased protection, and it’s not good for the psyche to live in fear. Respect the danger of the virus and continue practicing smart health safety tactics, including social distancing and frequent hand-washing, but recognize that you can now enjoy some limited freedoms!
The bottom line: Many of us are tired of living with COVID-19 precautions and are anxious to enjoy the things we did before the pandemic, such as group gatherings in public without wearing masks. However, even if you are fully vaccinated, some danger of contracting the coronavirus—and potentially experiencing death or long-term health problems, including loss of smell and taste, heart and lung damage, and fatigue—remains. We have come so far, and hopefully, herd immunity or a major reduction in infections is approaching…but it’s not here yet. Hang in there, keep practicing COVID-19 safety measures, and keep your eyes on the prize of a happy, healthy future!
Mike DuBose has been an instructor for the USC’s graduate school since 1985, when he began his family of companies, and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional published business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health articles written with Surb Guram, MD.