There is some hope on the horizon more than a year after the World Health Organization formally declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Multiple vaccines are available that are proven to be extremely effective at preventing major illness and death due to the virus, a game changer in a public health crisis that has killed more than 2.7 million people worldwide. As a result, more and more Americans are getting their vaccines every day, and multiple states are quickly beginning to expand vaccine eligibility to people above the age of 16. By May, all adult Americans should be eligible for vaccination.
With all of these positive developments that will hopefully slow the spread of COVID-19, many Americans are antsy to experience a somewhat normal summer after a year of restrictions and mask mandates. However, at this point in the ongoing pandemic, it is extremely dangerous to relax COVID-19 protocols and allow fully vaccinated people to move freely about their communities, the country and the rest of the world. Continued patience after getting the COVID-19 vaccine is absolutely necessary to prevent even more catastrophic loss of life.
As of late, there has been plenty of discussion on what the growing population of fully vaccinated people are allowed to do. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated guidance on gatherings, stating that fully vaccinated people can gather indoors without masks. Additionally, fully vaccinated people can skip COVID-19 quarantines if they are exposed to someone who has been exposed to the coronavirus, and many countries are open to tourists who have received the full dosage of one of the COVID-19 vaccines.
This progress in vaccination seems to have tempted many to act as if the pandemic is officially over. The sights on Florida’s beaches are particularly troubling as spring breakers flock to sunbathe and catch up on the fun that they missed over the last year. Talk of “living your life” has become more and more common as Americans desperate for leisure travel and summer revelry shrug off the CDC’s pleas for continued vigilance against the coronavirus. This is nothing short of foolish and reckless.
Vaccination is the key to preventing the COVID-19 surge that we are otherwise doomed to see, according to health experts. Herd immunity — when a large portion of a population is immune to a disease — is almost a household phrase at this point because of how important it is to stop the spread of a deadly virus. A population reaches herd immunity when enough people are immune to infection from the disease, either through vaccination or previous infection, according to the WHO. The percentage of the U.S. population that would need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to achieve herd immunity is still unknown. However, herd immunity from other infectious diseases, like polio and measles, have around 80 percent and 95 percent cutoffs, respectively. Therefore, we can reasonably assume that having just 10 percent of Americans now fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is insufficient.
As we come to understand more about how the vaccines prevent transmission and their length of efficacy, there is no absolute guarantee of returning to normal by summer, and there is certainly no reason to pretend as though life has gone back to normal now. This delay is largely because the country has begun to reopen much too soon. Some states are lifting COVID-19 restrictions and mask mandates, creating an ample breeding ground for deadlier and more transmissible coronavirus variants to spread unfettered in the United States. Lifting restrictions may make sense when enough people are vaccinated to reach herd immunity, but it is absolutely mind-boggling now. One reason is that vaccinated people are still able to transmit the virus to others. Vaccination may protect an individual from showing symptoms and, most importantly, hospitalization and/or death. But the slim proportion of Americans who have received the vaccine cannot return to pre-pandemic norms without risking infecting someone who has not yet received their first vaccine dose. Hazardous behaviors include not wearing masks outdoors, hosting large gatherings (especially with unvaccinated people) and traveling for leisure purposes. Indeed, organizations like the CDC still strongly urge Americans to hold off on domestic and international travel.
As such, vaccinated people are in a unique position. While their vaccination status may open up opportunities that unvaccinated Americans may not see for months, they still carry an immense responsibility to keep following COVID-19 guidelines. This special role that vaccinated people serve is more important now than ever. According to White House Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States is weeks out from experiencing a deadly surge in COVID-19 cases, spurred by new coronavirus variants like those that European countries are currently facing. This is eerily similar to the surge in the United States a little over a year ago, when Italian citizens warned Americans of the coronavirus wave that was headed our way.
It is extremely tempting to feel hopeful for a “normal” summer this year. The pandemic has already taken so much: good health and the lives of family members and friends, as well as pastimes like visits with loved ones, communal celebrations and vacations. Yet while fully vaccinated people can gather among themselves maskless and (almost) worry-free, it is still their responsibility to protect those who have yet to receive the vaccine by continuing to wear masks and social distance. Federal public health guidelines are still in place for a reason: Even vaccinated people are not out of the woods yet.
Rachael Schmidt ’21 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.