Vaccinated and (mostly) unmasked

Shortly after I wrote this post, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new guidance regarding mask wearing/distancing among fully vaccinated people in response to newly published research findings.

The good news is that fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks indoors with extremely low risk of contracting or spreading coronavirus. Mask wearing is still recommended in medical settings such as hospitals. Requirements to mask on public transport remain in effect, as do any mandates or policies put in place by state/local governments and businesses.

The bad news is that people who are not fully vaccinated might also stop wearing masks – and wouldn’t stand out because others would just assume if they weren’t wearing a mask that they were vaccinated – and so could be exposing themselves and their contacts to coronavirus, which would drive up infection rates. This is not helped by states that have already dropped their mask mandates or never had them in the first place.

Some governors immediately dropped their mask mandates while others, such as Governor Cuomo of New York where I live, are reviewing the situation before making any changes.

Personally, I expect that I, though vaccinated, will not be making many changes in my mask behavior immediately. The few stores that I frequent are likely to keep their mask policies in place for now. Visiting my father in the health care building of his senior community will probably still require masking because, although they are vaccinated, the residents are still vulnerable due to their age and underlying health problems. If the state does drop the mask mandate, small businesses, such as hair salons and restaurants, may decide to let vaccinated customers unmask and could easily ask for proof of vaccination to give peace of mind to their employees and customers.

I am frustrated by the media commentary surrounding this CDC announcement. For weeks, commentators have been complaining that the CDC was too slow in changing its recommendations for vaccinated people and that it was a disincentive to get vaccinated. The CDC was waiting for additional scientific findings to be published before making changes, but, now that they have, the commentators are complaining that it happened too fast.

They are also complaining that the CDC guidance is confusing. It’s not. It is meant for use on an individual level and it’s very clear about what activities fully vaccinated individuals can do without masking/distancing and what activities unvaccinated people can do without masking/distancing. The CDC and the federal government are not the ones with authority to require masks in stores, churches, etc. State and local governments and businesses do that.

So, please, everyone, stop whining, learn about the recommendations from the CDC and the policies in place in your local area, and behave accordingly for the safety of yourself and others.

If you are eligible for vaccination but haven’t done it yet, make arrangements to do so as soon as possible so you don’t become seriously ill or pass the virus on to someone else.

Remember to be kind and respectful to others. Some vaccinated people will choose to continue wearing masks because they are immunocompromised and more susceptible. I know people with allergies who are continuing to mask outdoors to protect themselves from high pollen counts. Some parents of children who are too young to be vaccinated wear their masks to be a good example for their children. It is not your business to criticize someone else’s decision and masking is never a wrong choice when it comes to public health. In some countries, masks have been common for years, especially during flu season or when there are air quality problems.

The CDC recommendations rely on public trust. Unvaccinated people need to demonstrate that they are worthy of trust by following the public health guidance. Overall infection and death rates are down, but they will spike again if people don’t continue to vaccinate and mask/distance until they complete the vaccine process. A spike might not happen until colder weather drives more people indoors, but it won’t happen at all if we can get the vast majority of teens and adults vaccinated by fall.

The prospect of the epidemic phase of COVID-19 being over by fall is within reach, but only if people follow this guidance and get vaccinated.

Let’s do it!

post-vaccine life

With my immediate family in the US vaccinated against COVID-19, we are inching our way back to a more interactive life while still following the national and New York State guidelines.

The most important thing that has happened for us personally is a greater ability to see my dad, known here as Paco, who lives nearby in the assisted living unit of his long-time senior community. After months of not being able to visit, we can now go to his apartment, albeit in pre-arranged thirty minute slots. I can also sign him out to go for a car ride; previously, he was only allowed away from the unit for medical care.

This has meant that I can see him more times per week and that I can take him out for treats. Last week, we went to an ice cream stand in the afternoon. This morning, I was able to bring him to get a doughnut and coffee. We are still being cautious about indoor spaces, so I don’t bring him into buildings. We enjoy our treats in the car or at outdoor tables.

The best thing, though, was that my older sister and her spouse were able to come visit for a couple of days last week. They hadn’t been able to visit since last summer. They live in Maryland and couldn’t enter New York until recently due to our travel/quarantine restrictions. Because of the vaccines, those have been relaxed. With all of us vaccinated, we were able to have everyone to our house for dinner. B made lasagna from Nana’s recipe, homemade Italian bread, sautéed asparagus, and apple pie. It was all delicious – and extra heartwarming to be together after so many months apart.

We are also starting to work our way back to activities like dining indoors. I’ve had one lunch and one dinner inside restaurants. We wore masks when not eating or drinking and the tables were spaced so that we weren’t very close to other diners. We are likely to continue doing carryout more often than dining in for a while, especially because dining in most likely involves having to make reservations while carryout is easier to do spur-of-the-moment.

There was just a national policy announcement clarifying mask use recommendations for outdoor events in light of vaccinations. Vaccinated people can exercise, socialize in small groups, and eat outdoors without needing to wear a mask. They should, though, continue to mask if they are in a large group setting, such as a sporting event or concert where the crowd would be close together for extended periods. It is good to have this clarification, but it won’t make much difference for our family. New York has had a mask mandate in place for over a year, but it was adapted in order to deal with the circumstances. Given that we don’t live in a congested area, we were already accustomed to taking maskless walks in our neighborhood. If we stopped to talk to someone, we would just keep six feet of distance between us. Still, it was good to see that there are now different recommendations in place for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Perhaps it will serve as motivation for people who haven’t yet been vaccinated to arrange to do that. In many locations, you don’t even need to make an appointment in advance.

If people need more motivation to get vaccinated, they can switch on a news report from India to see the horrific toll that the virus takes when it sweeps through an unvaccinated population. The infection and hospitalization rates are staggering. A new variant has emerged and there are so many deaths that the system to handle them is overwhelmed.

This virus remains very dangerous, capable of inflicting serious illness and death. The vaccines are safe and very effective. Everyone aged sixteen and over in the United States has access to vaccine and should be immunized unless there is a personal medical issue that precludes it. If you don’t feel personally vulnerable, remember that, even if you yourself don’t get severe symptoms, you could pass the virus on to someone else who could become very ill or die.

The only way to end the pandemic is for there to be large-scale immunity everywhere. Every effort we make, whether it is our individual vaccination and precautions or our large-scale efforts such as sending vaccines, treatments, and supplies wherever they are needed around the world, is part of what is needed to end this.

And remember: People taking vaccines approved for emergency use are not “guinea pigs.” The “guinea pigs” are the hundreds of thousands of people like me and my family who volunteered to be in clinical trials. (B, T, and I are all part of the Pfizer/BioNTech phase III trial. I’ve posted about it a number of times over the past months.) Government agencies and the pharmaceutical companies are continuing to collect data and have affirmed that the dangers of contracting COVID are much, much greater than any side effects of the vaccine.

Please, everyone do your part to keep yourself and others safe. Vaccinate, mask, distance, and practice good hygiene. Pay attention to credible medical and public health sources. The rewards of being able to safely gather, to give a hug to a loved one, to see a friend’s smile are simple, yet profound.

We just need to work together to make it possible for everyone, everywhere.

Unmasked!

As my more frequent readers may recall, spouse B, daughter T, and I are all participants in the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine trial. The vaccine received emergency use authorization in the United States in December 2020. Pfizer is now unmasking people in the placebo group and offering to make them part of the vaccine group for further study as they plan to follow participants for two years to gather data on long-term efficacy.

Earlier this week, I received a call saying that I was in the placebo group, which B, T, and I had long suspected as they both had side effects after our injections but I did not. I will receive my first injection with the real vaccine in early February, timed to coincide with the end of the waiting period after the shingles vaccine I had this month. I am grateful for the opportunity to receive the vaccine and to contribute to the data which will help keep more people from suffering the worst consequences of COVID and eventually end the pandemic.

While we will still need to mask and distance, I’m hoping that, as I and others around me are vaccinated, I will be able to return to some places that I have not been able to visit. I may, at least occasionally, make a reservation to attend mass on the weekend, something that I always did pre-pandemic but have not done since March 2020. I may visit with friends indoors, which would be nice given that outdoor visits are tricky in the winter. Eventually, we may be able to travel again, although I’m afraid a trip to London will not be possible for some months.

The other piece of good vaccine news from our family is that my 95-year-old father, known here as Paco, has received his second shot of the Pfizer vaccine. In a couple of weeks, he should reach his maximum level of protection. This is particularly important because he is in an assisted living unit, which is considered a higher risk living situation. Presently, visiting is very restricted. T was able to visit him in person for half an hour today in a socially distanced visiting room; earlier this week, I was able to do a window visit, where we could see each other through a window while we spoke by phone. I am hoping that, as residents and staff all receive their vaccinations and as more members of families receive theirs, the state will relax visiting restrictions to allow masked visits into residents’ apartments. We haven’t been able to see Paco’s new place yet and would love to be able to help organize things for him.

In our little corner of upstate New York, we are chipping away at the pandemic, doing what we can to bring it under control. We know, though, that things in the country as a whole will be difficult throughout the winter. We have passed 414,000 deaths in the US with the expectation that we will reach half a million deaths in February. It’s staggering.

I’m hopeful that the Biden administration’s leadership and plans will help us get through this winter with the least amount of damage possible, although we have been warned that things will get worse before they get better. I hope each person will do what they can to help in the effort.

unmasked

Last week, I needed to bring one of our vehicles to a dealership for a recall. The one we usually use wasn’t certified to work on the electrical/battery system of our hybrid, so we made the appointment at another dealer in a neighboring county. We live near the county line, so it’s just a couple of towns to our west.

Tioga County is a rural county; Broome, where I live is a mix of rural, urban, and suburban, although Binghamton is a small city by most standards with a population of about 46,000. Broome County’s population is about 190,000 in 716 square miles; Tioga’s is 48,000 in 523 square miles.

Your geography trivia for the day!

So, I arrive at the service department of the dealership, wearing my mask. There is a sign on the door that face coverings are optional for customers but required for staff, which seemed a bit odd as New York State rules are to wear a mask whenever people are closer than six feet (2 meters). I was surprised to walk up to the service desk to find that there was no plexiglass barrier to protect the employee and he was not wearing a mask.

I tried to maintain distance as best I could. I checked in, walked past unmasked customers in line, and sat in the waiting area with unmasked customers while unmasked employees walked through several times. When the repair was complete, the employee doing checkout hastily put on a mask after the window that separated her desk from the hallway was opened.

The experience left me feeling not endangered, because I was masked and maintained social distance most of the time, but disrespected. While the business knew that its employees should be masked when in proximity to another employee or a customer, they were not complying.

As the designated shopper in our house, I’m used to visiting businesses which have implemented careful measures to keep their employees and customers as safe as possible. The result has been that our infection rate in the state has remained very low as we methodically re-open businesses and services. If I am ever in a similar situation that I have to use this car dealership, I’ll make arrangements to drop the car off the evening before so that I only need to go inside to do the final paperwork when it’s ready.

I hope that there won’t be any outbreaks from the disregard that I witnessed at the car dealership, which, presumably, was considered acceptable to others in that community. For me, it seemed a small taste of what I hear on the news from other states, that folks don’t believe that masks and distancing help prevent COVID infections or that masks infringe on their liberties or that COVID doesn’t exist, all of which contribute to the appalling rates of illness and death in the United States.

At least I know that no one there will have contracted COVID from me.

A quiet Fourth

Yesterday was celebrated as Independence Day in the United States. We usually just call it the Fourth of July, which it is, of course, everywhere in the world.

Celebrations this year were muted by the ongoing COVID catastrophe. While we still have the virus pretty well controlled where I live in the Northeast US, much of the rest of the country is experiencing a rapid spread which is threatening to overwhelm the health care system. Many states in the South and West are breaking their records for new cases daily and some are belatedly issuing mandatory use of masks in public and closing bars, indoor restaurants, and beaches, in hopes of reducing their infection rates.

It breaks my heart to see the level of suffering, knowing that much of it could have been avoided if leaders and the public understood and respected what the public health experts have been telling us. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Stay six feet away from people who don’t live in your household. Avoid gatherings. Stay at home except for essential work and errands.

The advice works! We proved it in New York State and other states in the Northeast. This is also how most of the other countries that have gotten their transmission rate to low levels did it.

On Independence Day, the United States commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which declares that all are equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Some of the people who won’t wear masks say doing so is an affront to their liberty, but liberty is not a license to abandon responsibility. I recently saw a political cartoon by Dave Whamond where a man was declaring his right to drive his car in the opposite direction on the highway. (It didn’t end well.) No person’s “liberty” should be allowed to interfere with someone else’s rights.

The Declaration of Independence ends, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” It was clear that the document was not about something so small as personal desire or preference or grievance.

We each bear a responsibility to others.

Don’t drive the wrong way down the highway.

Wear a mask.