PROVIDENCE – The second Easter of the COVID-19 pandemic is this weekend, and unlike last year, when many states were in lockdown and public-health officials urged people to stay home and not have guests, the guidance for this Sunday offers more freedom.
But not total freedom. Attention to the nuances of vaccination this year is critical.
So proclaimed Brown University School of Public Health dean Dr. Ashish Jha, a global pandemic expert, on Tuesday during the 23rd weekly taping of the national “COVID: What Comes Next” podcast.
“If you are with other vaccinated people, you are really quite safe and you can do whatever you want, meaning if you want to get together with four or five other vaccinated people and have a meal, fabulous,” Jha said. “The bigger problem is what about vaccinated people getting together with unvaccinated people -- or even more concerning, unvaccinated people in general getting together who are not part of the same household.”
What to do?
“With the variants circulating and infection numbers rising, it's not a good idea,” Jha said. “I know that Easter is incredibly meaningful for so many people and what I would say is: This is probably the last major holiday where people who want to be vaccinated have not been able to get a vaccine. By Memorial Day, anybody who wants a vaccine will have gotten one. So if [unvaccinated] people can hold off on gathering, that would be really important.”
On a related topic, Jha welcomed this week’s news of a CDC study showing that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are highly effective in what are called “real-life conditions” – namely, against today’s widely circulating variants. The same study also showed high rates of effectiveness after just one shot and found that vaccinated people seem unlikely to transmit the disease if they become asymptomatically infected.
“This is really good news and all consistent with a lot of other data we've had,” Jha said. “All of this is terrific and just a reminder of how great these vaccines are.”
Jha also reacted to cautionary statements Monday by CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, someone he respects and has known for years. She warned of a possible fourth surge of COVID disease, which, she said, leaves her with a sense of “impending doom.” Walensky also spoke of America’s pandemic fatigue, declaring: “I know you all so badly want to be done. We are just almost there, but not quite.”
Said Jha: “She is very measured and forward in her words, so I take words like that seriously. This is not a person, a leader, who speaks glibly or quickly…
“Why did she say it? The concern is we are seeing an increase in cases in like 35 states, infection numbers are rising pretty quickly in a bunch of them, and given that we still have a good chunk of Americans who are vulnerable – who have not yet been vaccinated -- she's worried and I'm worried that we're going to see a spike in cases.”
Jha answered two audience questions while taping the podcast, available exclusively from The Providence Journal and the USA TODAY NETWORK:
◘ Los Angeles resident Ryan Maldonado, a TV writer and father of a young child, asked about the UK variant, now the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the U.S.: “Are more kids being hospitalized? Are more kids dying?”
Jha answered, in part, that the variant in people of all ages “may cause slightly more severe disease but it's not a huge effect. I suspect that will show up in kids too, but do I expect kids in large numbers to start getting infected and really sick or even, God forbid, dying? No, I think that is highly unlikely.”
◘ The second question was from a listener in New England who asked: “Could you please speak more about air travel for those who are already vaccinated? When is it safe/responsible enough for fully vaccinated people to travel by air within the US?”
Jha said: “I don't think people need to be avoiding travel at this moment for important things. I don't know that I would be doing a whole lot of unnecessary travel at this moment, but for things that feel important personally or professionally, if you're fully vaccinated, I think it's reasonable and safe to get on a plane.”
This weekly podcast is hosted by G. Wayne Miller, health reporter for The Providence Journal.