Let’s keep our masks on
Earlier this week the New York Times profiled a nursing home in West Virginia, United States, whose life after its residents and staff received the COVID-19 vaccine gives us an idea of what we in the Philippines might look forward to in the next few years, as we slowly make our way back to normalcy.
It will definitely take a longer time for widespread and safe vaccination to be completed in the Philippines, and reading these stories of vaccinated communities allows us to see what we might have to look forward to. With staff and residents of long-term care facilities comprising a surprising number of COVID-19 deaths, such individuals are high on the list of priorities for COVID-19 allocation. Now that some nursing homes abroad have completed vaccinations, they are beginning to ease restrictions on residents spending time with each other, which is a meaningful step for those who have been isolated in their rooms for the last year. They have been allowed to socialize in the same room with others again. Some have allowed socially-distanced visits from friends and family. It’s not much, but it eases some of the crippling isolation that marked 2020.
Younger people, too, are looking forward to socializing again. Activity on dating apps is at an all-time high during the pandemic and during Valentine’s month, and it’s interesting, but not all that surprising, that vaccination status is now an important parameter on dating profiles, as though it were a signal for “It’s safe to meet with me!” A spokesperson for OkCupid, one of the largest dating platforms, called receiving the COVID-19 vaccine “the hottest thing you could be doing on a dating app right now.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. Young persons are not usually a priority for receiving the vaccines unless they are in vulnerable groups or professions. Also, having received the vaccine might make a prospective date more attractive not because of the prospect of safer intimacy, but because those vaccinated have clearly chosen to trust science in the middle of a global debate on vaccine hesitancy. Still, clearly, people are hoping that once they get vaccinated, it will be safe to socialize with strangers again.
The reality is a little more sobering. When people wonder how much their lives will change soon after vaccination, the real answer should be: not that much. While COVID-19 vaccines have been proven safe and effective, they are not a means for picking up where we left off in 2019. Yes, those who are vaccinated significantly decrease their risk of disease — something highly important for those first vulnerable groups, including essential workers and health care professionals who are at much higher risk of infection. But vaccines should not change the habits that we picked up in 2020. Those vaccinated should still wear masks outside of their own homes. They should still avoid large groups, congested spaces, and indoor gatherings.
Much of this continued precaution is because of the uncertainty that remains, even as science has made huge strides on curbing virus spread. We are learning more and more each day about the extent to which vaccinated individuals might still be able to transmit the virus, and how vaccination is affected by the emergence of new variants. Moreover, it must be remembered that a small part of the population might be desirous of, but not eligible, for vaccination, still making pockets of the population vulnerable and needing isolation. There is also a segment of the population who will decline not to be inoculated. In the meantime, the virus continues to decimate populations around the world, while we wait for a large majority of the population to be vaccinated or to have survived a natural infection.
So what’s the safest thing to do? To keep our masks on, even once we’re vaccinated. Since last year, President Duterte has repeatedly talked about the vaccine as the means to end the pandemic, with the administration largely ignoring calls from the scientific community on how early containment should have curbed its spread anyway, and sending mixed messages on regulations for masks, face shields, social distancing, and gatherings. What we are seeing more and more just proves what experts have said all along—that vaccines are helpful and an important tool to help us manage the risk of coronavirus, but that their advent is not the end of the pandemic. We need to be optimistic and to be careful not to let these sobering realities discourage others from vaccination, but we still need to cautiously continue the measures that have helped us to survive 2020.
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