COVID-19 Questions Answered

Effectiveness of Vaccine

Question:

Some people believe that COVID-19 vaccines provide little or no protection against becoming infected with the current Omicron variant circulating in the U.S. Is this true? Can you share what you know about any studies or scientific reports regarding the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing infection? How effective are vaccines against the Omicron variant?

Response:

People who have received their initial vaccine series and at least one booster dose are 30-40% less likely to be infected with the currently circulating Omicron variant and have a greater than 80% protection against serious illness that can result in hospitalization or death.  People who have been infected with COVID have some residual immunity against future infection, but multiple research studies have shown that when previously infected people also receive vaccination, their protection against reinfection and serious illness is significantly better and longer lasting.  Since vaccinated people are less likely to become infected, they are also less likely to transmit the virus to others. 

Research has also shown that those who are vaccinated are 6-8 times less likely than unvaccinated individuals to get long COVID (symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, persistent cough, muscle pain, etc. lasting longer than 1 month).  As a result of all of these reasons, vaccination is strongly recommended as the best way to avoid infection and resulting serious health consequences.

Masks

Question:

To what extent does wearing a mask slow the spread of the recent strains of COVID-19?

Response:

Multilayer cloth masks (preferably a combination of natural and synthetic layers), KN95, and N95 masks covering both mouth and nose all reduce transmission to others and infection risks to the wearer.  The protection gets better as one goes from multilayer to KN95 to N95.  Benefits are most substantial in indoor spaces and as the concentration of people increases.  The more people in the space who are wearing masks, the better the protection.  As a result, if everyone is masked, multilayer cloth masks may be sufficient.  If relatively few people are wearing masks, someone who wants significant protection is best served wearing a well-fitting KN95 or N95.

Social Distancing

Question:

With the recent strains of COVID-19, to what extent does social distancing slow the spread of the virus?

Response:

Omicron, which is now responsible for nearly 100% of COVID infections in the U.S., evades our current vaccines to a greater extent than previous variants (see above for 30-40% vaccine effectiveness against mild infection).  As a result, combining vaccination with other means of preventing spread, such as social distancing, mask-wearing, people staying home when sick, improved ventilation and air filtration in buildings, are all very important in reducing spread and illness.

Natural Immunity

Question:

What is the latest scientific evidence regarding natural immunity? Would having had COVID-19 serve as a substitute for vaccines and/or booster?

Response:

See above.  Previous infection does not provide as effective or as lasting protection against subsequent infection as vaccination.  Given the potential for serious illness, it would be unwise to intentionally leave oneself vulnerable to infection.  For those who have been previously infected, research has shown that supplemental vaccination provides very good protection against reinfection.

Medical/Professional Opinion

Question:

Please provide the latest statistics for vaccination rate, COVID-19 case rate, vulnerability, and hospitalization for your county. In your opinion, are these the right metrics to help guide decisions on providing safety for student and employees? And if so, what target rates should be established to guide safety decisions?

Response:

The most important statistics at this time are booster rates, which are nearly 80% of eligible seniors (those who completed their initial vaccine series), but less than 50% of adults under age 50.  Rates of vaccination plus booster are very low among teens.  As a result, we have been seeing high infection rates across Southern Maryland over the past several months.  Due to the number of unreported home tests being performed, it is not possible to give an accurate rate of infections.  However, of the tests being done in medical facilities, the region is in the High Transmission range.   Hospitalization are not nearly as high as they were during the winter, but they remain substantial (dozens per week across Southern Maryland), and across the entire state, there have been approximately 70 COVID-related deaths per week.

Because the variants continue to shift both the transmissibility and severity of illness, setting specific targets is unwise.  The goal should be to minimize preventable transmission and disease.  This requires a combination of optimal vaccination (primary series plus at least one booster), environmental modifications (optimizing ventilation and air filtration in indoor spaces), and personal responsibility (wearing face coverings when there is substantial community transmission, staying home when ill).

PANDEMIC Status

Question: 

Are we in a pandemic or endemic? If we are in a pandemic, at what point does it become an endemic?

Response: 

This virus cannot be easily labeled as this or that.  Its spread is global (pandemic quality), and it has entrenched itself (endemic characteristic) in almost every country it’s reached.  The difference between COVID and other infections is that it’s not seasonal like influenza (no discrete yearly waves), and the unpredictable nature of new variants does not allow for this to be treated as a single infectious agent.  In some respects, COVID is endemic, but a new variant could evade existing immunity and spark an entirely new round of serious illness like a new epidemic/pandemic.  Regardless of how you current characterize it, one cannot predict what COVID will become one month or one year from now.

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