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Tools for ending COVID-19: Reduce risk with vaccines, behavior change

COVID-19 vaccinations are rolling out across the country!  Last month healthcare workers and nursing home residents started getting their shots as part of Pennsylvania’s Phase 1A. Just recently the 1A category was expanded to include anyone over 65 as well as those 16-64 with conditions that put them at particular risk.

Right now we are in the process of standing up the infrastructure to accomplish a major vaccination campaign around the country. Thus far each state is doing it slightly differently and the picture continues to evolve as to who is currently eligible and where they should go to get their shots. As the criteria have changed, systems for getting eligible people signed up for appointments and for ensuring shipments of vaccine to additional delivery locations must ramp up. It’s a lot of work and takes time.

This advent of COVID-19 vaccines is great news and points the way toward recovery.  We can now look ahead and see an eventual return to health as a day-to-day default expectation and to having our businesses and schools operating unimpeded again.  

But we aren’t there yet. The White House Coronavirus Task Force reports for Pennsylvania have been pointing out since early December that we will need to get some 100 million people across the country vaccinated before we can substantially reduce the spread and that we must reduce risky behaviors, like indoor gathering, and recognize key risk factors, like asymptomatic spread, now.

Asymptomatic spread means that people without symptoms who in many cases do not realize they are infected are most likely to spread the virus. Indoor gathering is dangerous because the virus hangs in the air in confined spaces, making it easier for someone to infect others accidentally or to get infected themselves.  Because of asymptomatic spread and the danger of indoor gathering, entirely normal familiar activities with loved ones, specifically indoor multi-household gatherings, are risky.  And they will continue to be risky even as some of the people in the community get vaccinated. In fact, the vaccines, while proven to drastically reduce the risk of severe disease, may not prevent people from being carriers for the virus. In other words, vaccinated people may be even more likely to have an asymptomatic case and therefore will need to be on their guard against infecting others.

Fortunately, we already have a list of things we can do to avoid spreading the disease, whether we have been vaccinated yet or not: 

• wear masks (properly),

• practice distancing,

• increase hygiene,

• avoid indoor gatherings (with people from other households), and

• isolate if positive, exposed, or with any symptoms (don’t only be on the lookout for severe or acute symptoms; almost anything could be a COVID symptom, even if it feels like “just allergies”; better to be safe than sorry).

What does all this mean for you and your family?  It’s time to be responsible and get creative.  Consider how to incorporate these recommendations into your socializing. The guidelines apply even to family and friends in your home; they are not just for when you are out and about in public.  Maybe shift your usual gatherings online or else adjust your plans to incorporate these suggestions: keep things outside and brief; reduce the number of people involved; and remind people about the need to keep each other safe and to take it seriously if they are supposed to be isolating. Don’t make exceptions to your quarantine!

You could also consider more involved ways of making getting together less risky, like retrofitting your open garage as a semi-protected and very well-ventilated site for short gatherings (still with masks and distancing!).  Or kit yourself out to be comfortable outdoors while masked and distanced even in winter, with blankets, lighting, firepits or outdoor heaters, and comfy chairs. Take it another mile and maybe try heated clothing, hand warmers, and heated insoles.

 Many people have been observing these kinds of precautions for much of the past year. But the arrival of new and more contagious variants makes it even more urgent for everyone to make safer decisions. Because so many cases have no symptoms whatsoever, we all need to be wearing masks and distancing – even around people we know well and even at home – just in case any of us have it but don’t know it!

This essay is part of a new initiative in the region to promote public health called Let’s End COVID. It’s a group of concerned people in Northcentral PA working to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic through education, outreach, and mitigation. Look for more messaging to come on masks, vaccination, testing, and other strategies to keep our families and communities healthy.

We know what it will take to get ourselves through this and move on to better days ahead promised by the vaccines. Time to just do it.

Samantha Pearson is the executive director of Lewisburg Neighborhoods, a non-profit community revitalization organization in Union County, and has been working with partners in multiple counties on regional public health messaging throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

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