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Individuals who have been fully vaccinated don’t need to be personally worried about the Delta variant. But they should be concerned for unvaccinated individuals and the broader community as the highly contagious variant continues to drive new coronavirus infections across the country and fall approaches, according to Dr. Megan Ranney.
The emergency room physician and associate dean at the Brown University School of Public Health stressed in an interview with Boston.com that the COVID-19 vaccines provide protection to the fully vaccinated from the virus — against catching it, hospitalization, and death.
“Now can Delta variant break through the protection from the vaccine and get us infected and symptomatic? Absolutely,” Ranney said. “That is part of the Delta variant that is putting us all on edge. But if you’ve been vaccinated, you don’t need to feel like you’re back in January of 2021. You do have protection, you don’t need to lockdown in your house.”
But fully vaccinated individuals should be taking some precautions to protect against Delta that weren’t needed two months ago, namely wearing masks in public indoor settings or in crowded situations when the vaccination status of the people around you isn’t known, the doctor said.
Households that have a family member who is immunosuppressed or immunocompromised should also be making adjustments to protect their loved ones from Delta, such as wearing masks around them. The Food and Drug Administration also announced last week that those with weakened immune systems can get an extra dose of the COVID-19 vaccine for better protection as the more contagious variant surges.
But the doctor’s biggest concern, looking ahead to the fall, is related to schools.
“We’re putting a bunch of unvaccinated kids in school in some districts without basic precautionary measures,” Ranney said. “There’s a virus that’s still here. And kids are not immune. And if you get the unvaccinated folks sitting together in school for eight hours a day, there needs to be masks and there needs to be ventilation.”
She believes just as strongly as she did last fall that kids need to be back in classrooms.
But the return needs to be done safely, she said. And that means masks.
“I wouldn’t put my kid in a car without a seatbelt — I’m not going to put my kid back in school without a mask,” Ranny said. “I worry that if we have schools going back without universal masking we’re going to see outbreaks among our kids.”
While the risk from Delta is much smaller for vaccinated individuals, those who haven’t yet gotten vaccinated at this point should “really be worried,” she said.
If exposed to Delta, they are “very very likely” to catch it, Ranney said. People above the age of 20 face a higher risk of hospitalization and death the older they are.
That’s why even vaccinated individuals should remain concerned about the ongoing situation with the contagious variant. Even in states with the highest vaccination rates, like Massachusetts, there are large pockets of people who are unvaccinated, she said.
“We ourselves, the vaccinated, are mostly protected — our communities are largely not,” Ranney said. “And we should be worried about our communities and about our health care systems and about the country at large. We really have to look at what’s happening right now in southern states to see what is likely to start across the country as we get into colder weather and people start spending more time indoors.”
The emergency room doctor said much more is known this fall than last year, particularly that non-pharmaceutical interventions — like masks, ventilation, and social distancing — work to protect against the spread of the virus.
“But in some ways we’re in a worse situation, because the Delta variant spreads more easily and because there are a lot of folks who have not [been vaccinated], the fact that mask-wearing has become politicized, which is a shame,” she said.
One of the most challenging messages for public health officials during the pandemic has been trying to get individuals to understand that the Delta variant is horrible and is overwhelming health system, even while vaccinated individuals are largely protected.
Both things are true, Ranney said.
“The worry should be about the community that hasn’t gotten vaccines to help themselves,” she said.
And as the fall approaches, with people developing colds and allergies and kids back in school, it remains just as important that everyone get tested if they develop the sniffles, fever, or sore throat, according to the doctor.
“You should not be spending time with other folks [if you have symptoms] — you need to go get tested and you should mask up,” she said.
But at least so far with Delta, Ranney said she and other public health officials believe it is still safe for fully vaccinated individuals to continue to have small indoor vaccinated gatherings, unmasked, with others who have gotten their shots and are not experiencing any potential symptoms of COVID-19.
If you’re vaccinated, there’s no need yet to return to the pandemic bubble or pods of 2020.
“Is it no risk? No. But nothing in life is no risk; it’s a very low risk of getting seriously ill,” Ranney said of small, unmasked gatherings with vaccinated friends or family.
While she’s concerned about what could develop this fall, the emergency room doctor said she’s been encouraged to see most colleges in the region mandating vaccines and indoor masking.
It’s a hopeful sign, but precautions need to be more broadly exercised to protect against growing cases and protect those who have not yet been vaccinated.
“I’m hopeful that here with our vaccination rates, our good governors will stand up for kids and insist on universal masking — I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to avoid the mess, the high rate of hospitalization and death we’re seeing in the southern states right now,” Ranney said.
Seeing the surge in cases is frustrating and exhausting for those working on the front lines in health care, she said. Nurses are leaving the profession, exhausted by working in constant crisis conditions.
People both locally and nationally are burnt out, she said.
“We’re all admitting unvaccinated COVID patients and we will care for them just as well as we would have a year ago, but it’s very emotionally taxing to be back in this situation again — that is so preventable,” Ranney said.
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