February 5, 2021

Weekly line: The coronavirus mistakes that people (still) keep making

Daily Briefing
    By Ashley Fuoco Antonelli, senior editor

    Just about everyone is eagerly awaiting the end of the coronavirus pandemic, and many people are counting on Covid-19 vaccines to get us there. But although the vaccines will play a key role in stopping the pandemic, experts say the most important tools to halt the novel coronavirus' spread have been in humans' wheelhouse since the pandemic's start—it's just a matter of using them properly.

    How Covid-19 is changing the future of the health care industry

    Why vaccines alone won't stop the pandemic

    Public health experts have long cautioned that although Covid-19 vaccines would be a key tool in ending the coronavirus pandemic, there are several reasons why they're likely not a panacea for stopping the virus.

    Perhaps the biggest reason, according to scientists, is that the vaccines don't necessarily provide people with perfect immunity against the novel coronavirus. Early data has shown that authorized vaccines from Pfizer and BioNTech, as well as Moderna, can reduce a person's risk of developing Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, by about 95%. While that is a relatively high efficacy rate, it means that a small fraction of people who have been vaccinated, about 5%, could become sick—and that could represent a large number of people if the coronavirus is widespread, which it currently is in the United States.

    As Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health, told the New York Times' "The Upshot," "Five percent of a really high number is still a high number, and what you want is 5% of a relatively medium or low number."

    Compounding that issue is the fact that research suggests newly emerging variants of the novel coronavirus may be even less susceptible to vaccines, which may reduce their efficacy. Further, while some early data suggests the United States' authorized Covid-19 vaccines might curb the coronavirus's transmission, it's not yet clear whether the vaccines completely prevent people from becoming infected with and potentially transmitting the novel coronavirus. As such, even if people have received the vaccine, they still may be able to spread the novel coronavirus to others who haven't been vaccinated.

    Ultimately, that means people still must use the  most important tools for stopping the novel coronavirus, which include measures such as wearing face masks and physical distancing, even after they've been vaccinated, experts say.

    People can stop the coronavirus's spread—but many make these mistakes

    The good news, according to experts, is that people are now familiar with these tools and, when used properly, they're highly effective at curbing the coronavirus's transmission—meaning they have the potential to halt the pandemic.

    The bad news, however, is that people are less than perfect at practicing these measures, and that's led to the pandemic's persistence—and, in some instances, resurgence—particularly in the United States.

    To be fair, it's not necessarily for lack of trying. Experts note that, in some cases, people are attempting to follow public health measures intended to curb the coronavirus's spread, but conflicting guidance from local, state, and federal policymakers can make it tough to know exactly what to do.

    For instance, experts say that discrepancies in coronavirus-related restrictions among different areas may lead people to falsely believe that any permitted activities in a given area are safe, when they're not. Experts point to indoor dining at restaurants and bars as an example: Although indoor dining is one of the riskiest activities people can do amid the pandemic, many states and localities throughout America permit indoor dining at reduced or even full capacity, which may lead people to falsely believe that indoor dining is safe. And even many outdoor dining setups are unsafe when it comes to possible coronavirus transmission, perhaps unbeknownst to well-intended businesses and patrons.

    Another misstep, according to Lucy Yardley, a professor of health psychology at the University of Bristol, is that many people don't realize their interactions with one group of people can affect the risk they bring to another group of people. She explained to The Guardian's Linda Geddes, "For instance, young people often feel they can mix freely with their peers, because they know their peers are not at high risk. Then they'll go and see their grandparents, and be more careful with them–but not as careful as they need to be, given that they've been mixing freely with their peers, who've been mixing freely with everybody."

    And it's not just young people, Yardley said. "I've seen interviews with parents who are being really careful in many respects, but then allow their children to mix freely with friends for their mental health, and then also their children to bubble with their grandparents, for the mental health of both the children and the grandparents. I'm sure the parents aren't wanting to infect the grandparents, but that's the best way to do it," Yardley told Geddes. "People don't sufficiently understand how this sort of free mixing in one situation passes on."

    Issues also can pop up with so-called "coronavirus bubbles," which some people have formed to allow them to socialize with a select group of people amid the pandemic. The trouble, however, is that one person's idea of what's safe amid the pandemic may not match with another person's views in the bubble, meaning the bubble isn't actually as safe as one might think.

    As Carolyn Cannuscio, a social epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Vox's Sigal Samuel, for bubbles to work, people inside them have to consistently stick to a strict set of social distancing rules outside of the circle, which Cannuscio said could be difficult to follow.

    And even if the people inside your bubble say they're adhering to the bubble's rules, that doesn't mean they are. "A lot of people don't disclose their breaches of social distancing or even their symptoms to other people," Yardley told Geddes. For example, Geddes notes that one study of 551 U.S. adults found that about 25% had lied about their social/physical distancing practices. Further, among those who had contracted the novel coronavirus, 34% said they had denied having symptoms of Covid-19 when asked by others.

    Another mistake people often make when it comes to coronavirus countermeasures is not properly assessing a space's ventilation, experts say. While research has shown that adequate ventilation can help to reduce the risk of contracting or transmitting the novel coronavirus, "[v]entilation doesn't just mean opening a window," Geddes writes.

    "The clue is in the name: vent, or wind," Gabriel Scally, a visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol, told Geddes. "You do need a draught going through. People should be conscious of ventilation in the workplace, shops, or any enclosed space–including at home, which is where most transmission takes place."

    Along those same lines, some people fall into trouble assuming that any gathering that occurs outdoors is safe. What's really key is not merely being outdoors, but also maintaining adequate physical distancing while you're gathering outdoors, experts say.

    And in some instances, people incorrectly believe that, as long as they're wearing a face mask, they're protected against transmitting or contracting the novel coronavirus. However, research has shown that some masks are more effective than others, and experts say people should consider upgrading to medical-grade masks or wearing two masks  to increase their protection—particularly with the emergence of new, more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus.

    A need to double down

    It's easy to understand why people may make mistakes when it comes to following measures intended to curb the coronavirus's spread. Since the pandemic's start, people have been bombarded with misinformation regarding the virus and mitigation measures, as well as changing recommendations and inconsistent policies and coronavirus-related restrictions throughout the United States.

    But what's important now, experts say, is that Americans double down on the measures we know can prevent the virus's spread—physical distancing, avoiding crowded indoor spaces and dining indoors, wearing face masks, gathering only with people who live in our households, and others—to stop the pandemic.

    With new, more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus circulating in the United States and Covid-19 vaccines rolling out slowly, whether America can turn the tide on its coronavirus epidemic will rely mostly on how well Americans practice those tried-and-true mitigation measures, experts say.

    As Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to the White House's Covid-19 response team, said this week, one of the key ways to ensure America's coronavirus epidemic doesn't get worse is by suppressing the virus's spread. And to do that, people need to "continue to double down on the public health measures to prevent spread from person to person" while the country works to "get as many people" vaccinated against Covid-19 as possible.

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