How safe is it for people vaccinated against Covid-19 to return to work in person? An expert intervenes
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed its guidelines to once again recommend that even vaccinated people begin to mask themselves indoors in areas of the country where the spread of the coronavirus is high and substantial. Key to their decision was a study that shows that fully vaccinated people can still transmit the Delta variant.
At the same time, Disney, Netflix, Google, Walmart, and the federal government have announced plans to implement some type of vaccine requirement for employees returning to work in person.
Is it safe for those vaccinated to return to work if vaccination mandates are in place? What if they are not – is the mask sufficient, and what if others around you are not vaccinated and are not wearing masks? What about workers who have children too young to be vaccinated?
To help us navigate these uncertain times, we turned to CNN medical analyst Dr Leana Wen. Wen is an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also the author of a new book, “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health”.
CNN: We know revolutionary infections can happen. How does it help to have vaccination mandates at work if the vaccinated can also spread Covid-19?
Dr Leana Wen: Vaccine requirements will help make workplaces much safer for everyone. Here’s why. There is a lot of misunderstanding about what the new CDC data shows. The agency found that vaccinated people infected with Covid-19 can carry as many viruses as those who are not vaccinated and have Covid-19.
However, the risk of actually contracting Covid-19 is significantly reduced if you are vaccinated. According to Dr Anthony Fauci, you have an estimated eight-fold reduction in the risk of getting coronavirus if you’re vaccinated compared to if you’re not – and an estimated 25-fold reduction in the risk of having a disease. severe enough to result in hospitalization. and death, which is really remarkable.
In other words, if I have to spend time in an enclosed indoor space with someone, the risk of that person having coronavirus and potentially infecting me is about eight times less if they are vaccinated. This is why workplace vaccine requirements make sense. This greatly reduces the risk of your coworkers getting infected. And because you are also vaccinated, your chances of getting Covid-19 from them are also reduced by about eight times compared to if you weren’t vaccinated.
Could it be possible that someone has coronavirus and you are still contracting it from them? Yes. The higher the rate of transmission of the coronavirus in your community, the more likely a person is to have Covid-19, even if they are vaccinated. However, it is much safer to share space with people when everyone is fully immunized.
CNN: What if the workplace allowed people to opt out of immunization through testing?
Magnifying glass: It depends on the frequency of testing. Testing is not a strategy that prevents someone from contracting Covid-19. However, if there is frequent testing, it could quickly catch infections and prevent that person from spreading them. I would feel more comfortable with bi-weekly tests than with weekly tests. The antigen test or the PCR test should be fine, as long as it is cleared by the FDA.
Test less frequently and I think you end up in a situation of false insurance. Just because someone tested negative a week ago doesn’t mean they haven’t been able to contract coronavirus in the meantime. And if they are not vaccinated, they have a better chance of contracting Covid-19 and therefore transmitting it to you.
CNN: Should workplaces require both vaccinations and a mask?
Magnifying glass: It’s an interesting question, and one that the CDC hasn’t really weighed in on. Right now, the CDC says indoor masking should take place in areas of high or substantial Covid-19 transmission, and they’re not saying if everyone is vaccinated, the masks are no longer. required.
I think this is a mistake. The risk of transmission from vaccinated people to other vaccinated people is low. At some point we have to accept that we are not going to get zero risk. Workplaces need to protect their employees, and a vaccine requirement is a very good level of protection. If a workplace really has a mandatory vaccination warrant with proof of vaccination, I think they could make masking optional instead of mandatory.
However, some people may choose to be more careful at work. It is also quite understandable. I hope that the workplaces will allow for adjustments. For example, some people may be immunocompromised. They may not want to sit in a crowded conference room with peers without masks – but vaccinated – because even a small risk to them is too much. Hopefully, employers will allow these employees to work from home, or be in a separate physical space and call for virtual meetings. Of course, not all workplaces can reasonably make these accommodations, and that is again why vaccine requirements are so important. They considerably reduce the risks.
CNN: What if a workplace doesn’t require vaccines? Is the masking sufficient? Or what about places that don’t need it either?
Magnifying glass: A workplace that does not require vaccines but continues to adhere to strict masking and distancing, and has good ventilation, is also fairly safe. Adding tests on top of that will be a useful extra layer of protection. The quality of the mask is important – in these situations people should at least wear a three-layer surgical mask. And it is important that everyone always wears their mask – not to hang around their neck, but to completely cover their nose and mouth.
If the workplace doesn’t require vaccines or masks, and you know you’re surrounded by people without a mask who probably aren’t vaccinated, it’s a much riskier situation for you. Know that you are always well protected against serious illnesses; but depending on the rate of infection in the community around you, you may be at risk for a breakthrough infection.
Try to take steps to protect yourself. Wear an N95 or KN95 mask when you are nearby inside these maskless people with unknown immunization status. Try to stay away from them and, if possible, request accommodation to sit in a separate space. Open the window and door to increase the air flow. Avoid crowded assembly areas like break rooms and cafeterias. Know that the risk is cumulative. The more people you are exposed to, the higher your risk.
You can also see if other employees are feeling what you are feeling. More and more workplaces are implementing vaccine requirements – or at least a testing requirement. It is possible in your workplace that those who want these mandates are in the majority. Your voices need to be heard and they could make a difference.
CNN: What’s your advice for parents of young children or people living at home with immunocompromised family members? Should they try to continue working from home?
Magnifying glass: It is really difficult. A lot of people are in this situation where we might not be as concerned about a breakthrough infection for us as the chances are it will be mild, but we are very concerned about potentially being a carrier that could infect those we live with.
Taking precautions at work is important. The vaccine requirements would make me feel a lot safer. I would be comfortable going to work and not wearing a mask if everyone around me is sure to be fully immunized. I’d probably always try to stay out of high-risk environments, like cramped, poorly ventilated conference rooms where dozens sit side by side for hours on end.
If I’m not sure others around me are vaccinated, I would make sure to wear a high quality mask when around them indoors. Others will be even more careful. Someone who lives at home with an elderly relative on immunosuppressive medication may want to follow CDC guidelines exactly and wear a mask even if everyone around them is known to be vaccinated. Still others may choose to work from home if that is an option available to them. We all have a different tolerance for risk, and I hope companies try to make reasonable accommodations for people’s living conditions.
It is a very confusing time for everyone. It feels like the United States has taken a step backwards in its fight against the pandemic, and we have. The Delta variant changed things again. We must remain vigilant, reassess our own risks and those of our families, and keep in mind that vaccination remains essential to protect ourselves and our loved ones.