For anyone that's fully vaccinated, you're probably wondering what this means for you going forward. In addition to guidelines from the CDC, we wanted to share a 1-on-1 interview with Infectious Disease Specialist and Medical Director at AllWays Health Partners, Dr. James Hellinger. Below he answers some of today's most buzzed-about questions circling everyone's minds regarding safety with transportation, travel, grocery stores, and restaurants.
Q: What would you say to someone that's fully vaccinated that wants to fly somewhere warm now that they're fully vaccinated?
A: I would start with guidance from the CDC that gives fully vaccinated individuals the green light to travel domestically without testing in advance or afterwards. However, what continues to be important is to mask and distance in public while avoiding crowds. Encountering crowds can be somewhat unmanageable and, at times, unpredictable. This warrants ongoing attention to collections of people, whether it's an airport security check-in, boarding line, or on the airplane. You can't predict how long you'll be waiting in line close to others who may not be wearing their masks correctly. It's good to double-mask and to ensure that your mask fits properly, covering your nose and mouth without any gaps.
Most airlines have publicized how good their ventilation systems are, but they are still filling planes at maximum capacity. The person in front and behind you is only three feet away, while a person next to you can be two feet away or less if your row is full. If you're flying, you must mask and be attentive to your surroundings; however simple it may seem, it still avoids your exposure. When traveling and in close quarters on a plane, bus, or train, other passengers should be masked—as should you. Eating and drinking next to someone you don’t know has some risk, so keep your mask on as much as possible. Keep in mind that you're only 90% protected with the vaccine —not 100%. However unlikely, if you’re exposed and become infected, there is still the possibility of asymptomatic or unrecognizable infection. In this case, you could unintentionally spread it to your loved ones, friends, or family. I encourage you to take advantage of the safety reflexes we’ve developed against COVID-19. There is still significant community spread, so no one should act like they’re immune.
Q: Would you recommend someone that's fully vaccinated go to a grocery store that has been hesitant about going it prior?
A: Yes, they should absolutely feel at ease going to the grocery store. Although a grocery store has unpredictable factors similar to an airplane terminal—like lines and people—the crowds are less intense. What's very different now than at the beginning of the pandemic is worrying about surfaces. Initially, the CDC thought COVID-19 was transmitted through surfaces, but now we know that most COVID-19 is sustained through close transmission. As long as you are distancing, have your mask on correctly, and you're not touching your face, there isn't much to worry about in grocery stores; gloves are not necessary. It's a good idea to have hand sanitizer, though, readily available for when you touch common surfaces.
Q: Is public transportation considered safe once you've been fully vaccinated?
A: Unlike a grocery store or an airport, there are lower ceilings and sometimes more people. Public transportation is somewhere in between the airport and grocery store, so I'd double mask. Since you're dealing with shared surfaces being used by many people, they are of higher risk. So be sure to have your hand sanitizer with you at all times. But, it's most important to be mindful of how packed the train or bus is and how much air is being shared. Airflow will, of course, be different in some of the newer vehicles compared to the older ones.
Q: How likely am I to catch COVID-19 from a hotel room?
A: I'd put a hotel room on the lowest level of risk considering the questions above. For the most part, in a hotel room, the density of exposure to COVID-19 is very low, especially since there is no crowd of people or shared surfaces. As long as you have hand sanitizer spray and wipes with you, there’s isn’t much to worry about with hotel rooms,
Q: What are your thoughts on safety going out to eat in a restaurant?
A: The density inside restaurants is an issue, especially when people are packed in, tables are in close proximity, and the ceilings are low. In some instances, tables are seated back to back. Also, if the restaurant is serving alcohol, this increases the chances of the crowded restaurant getting vociferous, which is a recipe for disaster. A supporting example comes from a CDC report that followed a 2.5-hour choir practice attended by 61 persons, including a few people with such minor symptoms they did not realize they had COVID-19. 32 confirmed and 20 probable secondary COVID-19 cases occurred; three patients were hospitalized, and two died. This unfortunate scenario resulted from shared space—which is what also happens in restaurants. In a restaurant, you're sitting close to people, they're laughing and enjoying themselves, and there is shared air between unmasked people. If you're dining outside, you can lessen several of these risks.
Q: What would you say to anyone hesitant about getting vaccinated?
A: I think the word hesitancy creates confusion. There's a larger population of people that aren't hesitant but rather face access barriers to getting vaccinated. These individuals may be frustrated by not having enough time to take off work, struggle to find an appointment online, or live far from their closest vaccination site. This is a larger group that’s been lumped into the category of hesitant individuals, but when you peel them apart, those who are genuinely hesitant are part of a much smaller group.
I would encourage those who are reluctant about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and want to wait to do their due diligence in research. They should also discuss the vaccine with trusted individuals they have confidence in, such as Healthcare providers, friends, or family. Keep in mind, even if COVID-19 may not cause symptoms for you, it can spread asymptomatically, causing worse symptoms for someone else.
As an infectious disease specialist, I can assure my friends, family, and patients that these vaccines are safe and effective. There are minimal side effects for the vast majority. A colleague of mine described the most common side effect from the vaccine as euphoria. He was thrilled to have increased his protection, enabling him to work more safely and protect his family.