This week we checked back in with Dr. Emily Landon, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago, to get all of your latest COVID-19 questions answered!
We talked about the CDC’s new masking guidelines — which she calls a “big mistake” — how to navigate reopening with unvaccinated kids, and the future of the pandemic.
Dr. Emily Landon: I think we have to separate out what the data shows and what we should do in terms of policy. I’m going to come right out and say I think the way this was handled was a big mistake. I think the data absolutely supports everything that the CDC said. People who were vaccinated really don’t need their masks anymore. But we don’t have that many fully vaccinated people. At the time when they came out with this, it was only like 30% of the public. And so it’s not exactly time to just say we don’t need mask mandates anymore. That doesn’t follow.
Greta Johnsen: Interesting. Liz on Instagram wanted to know if there are still situations where vaccinated people should wear masks, whether it’s inside or outside?
EL: Well, I think everybody should be wearing masks indoors until we reach a critical mass of either enough people vaccinated or the case counts are low enough that it’s not a problem. And I actually think that by mid June, maybe July, the case counts are going to be low enough (if they’re continuing in the same direction that they’re going now) to really justify saying we can be done with our mask mandates indoors at least for the time being. I think this just wasn’t - it was presented as really great news. And basically, instead of being a message about how important it was to get people vaccinated — because then we really could get rid of mass mandates — it turned into “Nobody needs to wear their mask anymore.” And I don’t know about your Instagram or your Twitter, but mine is full of people saying how great it is that they don’t have to get vaccinated and they also don’t have to wear a mask. It’s not cool.
On reopening with unvaccinated kids
GJ: Obviously a really big piece of what’s complicated right now is that kids still cannot get the vaccine. We got a voicemail about it. Liz wants to know what precautions should she be taking for her unvaccinated 10 month old daughter in the coming months?
EL: Liz, that’s a great question. I love this question! There’s actually a lot of data to help you navigate this with unvaccinated kids. So the real point that the CDC was making is that when you’re fully vaccinated, you tend to not get COVID. And even when you do get COVID, you’re not very contagious. And that is really important because it means that among vaccinated individuals, COVID is unlikely to spread. We’ve even seen people who have COVID after being vaccinated and who don’t spread it to their kids. So I think it’s important to know that your daughter’s at low risk, I don’t think you need to worry about your baby spending time with people who are vaccinated. And I think your baby can also spend time with unvaccinated people who are wearing masks and who’re keeping their hands clean and who are keeping a little bit of distance from her. But the important thing here is about when you’re in these situations where you can’t tell who’s vaccinated or not, like the grocery store or at a camp, you know, if you have an older child. Outdoors is obviously much safer than indoors, but if they’re going to be close up within six feet, then it really doesn’t matter if you’re outdoors or indoors. So you want to make sure that your unvaccinated kids are really only having up close contact with people who are wearing masks or who you know are fully vaccinated.
On the end of the pandemic
GJ: Something I’ve been really curious about lately is that I know COVID is something we’re going to be dealing with in our lives for a long time, but what about specifically the term “pandemic”? The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. Will there eventually be a day when the WHO will say it’s over? And if so, what are their criteria for that?
EL: The definition of a pandemic is when an infectious disease that’s new or not commonly seen is affecting multiple countries on multiple continents. So it depends on if this just goes away, or if we call it now “endemic,” which means it’s just part of the natural landscape. I think we’re not there yet. It takes at least a few years for these things to fade away, but we’re only a year in. So I think we’re going to have to sit tight a little bit longer. And, I mean, you still see what’s happening in India, and there’s plenty of other countries that just can’t get enough vaccines. So we’re not there yet. I feel like a lot of people took that CDC guidance about masking as the end of the pandemic. And that’s a very American-focused way of looking at it. There’s a lot of other parts of the world that are really still struggling, and that poses a threat to us. So that’s wrong. It’s not over. The good news is it’s getting better for us. But I think a global citizen would say, “Now it’s time for us to focus on how we can help our neighbors.” But I still think there’s a lot of people here that need some help. So a little bit of both.
On the Holy Grail of pandemic safety
GJ: Are you feeling optimistic these days?
EL: I’m really optimistic about the summer. I’m a little bit more measured and realistic about the fall and the winter. I think whatever happens in the fall in the winter is going to be surmountable and absolutely reasonable for us to get over. And the last thing we need to beat this — to really beat it — is an orally bioavailable medicine that we can give as a pill that will work. Nothing that needs to be injected, but a pill that somebody can take, that will either reduce the damage of the infection (i.e. make it less likely that you will have a bad outcome), or, even better, that will prevent you from getting sick after an exposure. You can give it to immunocompromised people after they’ve had an exposure or to kids who haven’t been vaccinated yet or even to adults who haven’t yet gotten the vaccine. I think that would be the absolute holy grail. We would have all the tools we need. And then we’d just have to make sure that everybody has access to it all over the world.
GJ: Could we call it a chill pill?
EL: I’m not sure if it will make people chill, but it will hopefully keep them from getting COVID.
GJ: It could keep you chill.
GJ: Emily, thank you so much for answering all those questions. You are the best!
EL: No problem.
This conversation was lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button to hear the full episode.