We’ve come a long way since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and with the nationwide rollout of the vaccine, businesses are re-opening and gatherings are restarting. While the CDC still requires masks on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation, masks are no longer required in private businesses and establishments. This has led to some confusion as to what comes next for non-transportation settings and what it means for mask-wearing, COVID transmission, and whether we’re really returning to how life was before.
To get more information, we spoke to Richard Carpiano, public health scientist and sociologist about how the next few months, weeks, and potentially years may look.
What does the vaccine mean for workplaces and returning to work?
Richard Carpiano: Returning to work itself is a big step and then, of course, thanks to the vaccine we have reduced sickness, COVID spread, and hospitalization in our population. The vaccine is our best option to return to some semblance of normal, however “normal” will change over time. We can have meetings in workspaces and more interactions now which can be very useful for many businesses and organizations. The vaccine also helps in settings like factories or in-person businesses, because it functions almost like insurance to help protect workers.
The pandemic forced a lot of extremely fast cultural changes on us — it illustrated to us the ability to not work on-site. Not just from home but not even working in a metropolitan area which is making us rethink things like office space.
There are also still a lot of policies that need to be worked out. Some people can’t or prefer not to get vaccinated, so companies are still considering their at-home work and vaccination policies.
Just this past week we saw that mandatory vaccine are allowed to be required by employers. At Houston Methodist Hospital, 150 workers refused to be vaccinated and the judge ruled because they’re in a healthcare setting, vaccines can be required. We’re still figuring out what our vaccine policies are going to be.
You can still get COVID even if you’re vaccinated, correct? What’s the CDC data showing about vaccines and transmission?
Yes, it’s true people can still get sick and be hospitalized, especially with these new variants. However, it’s a lot less severe than before though. Across state lines, there’s a great variety of vaccination levels. Some immunocompromised people and kids can’t be vaccinated and some people haven’t gotten their second shot yet. We’re not invincible and there’s still potential for a lot of flare-ups across the country.
Should people continue to wear masks in public settings?
There’s a low risk of transmission if you’re vaccinated but again, you’re not invincible. For people who are immunocompromised, high-risk, and too young to be vaccinated, by wearing a mask in a shared space like a bus or an office, you’re showing them support and compassion. Even if the risk is small, personally I want to be safe and make sure to be as much of a team player as possible. There’s herd immunity and also functioning community immunity. Also, along the way we’ve learned that masks can help protect you from other things, like colds. In many places in Asia, masks have been the standard and now that we’ve seen the benefits of regular mask-wearing and preventing the spread of diseases, this could stick in our society.
What’s the best way to commute safely?
I just took my first flight since February 2020! Masks are a good way to go and it was nice to see CDC policies implemented for transportation. Also, I see mask-wearing continuing in things like rideshares. There are jobs that can’t be done from home and there’s potential to be a vector or spreader when these people go back to commuting. Then it’s even more essential to be vaccinated. In cities, there’s still potential for spread, especially on public transportation, and masks continue to be essential if there’s no vaccine verification system.
What do you think the COVID timeline may look like going forward?
We’ve still got a rollout underway. I think Vermont was recently the first state to hit an 80 percent vaccination rate. There’s still lots of work to do in other states. We also need to keep an eye on variants, especially this new Delta variant. We’re also lucky in the United States, that we have a full supply of vaccines but you also need to look at the world. The variants show us why it’s important to get vaccinated as soon as possible so that they don’t keep mutating and spreading. The next few months will be interesting. Will there be vaccine verifications and at what levels? What safety measures will be implemented? People want to go to concerts, restaurants, and ballgames but we’re not completely out of the woods yet.