When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Brown Medicine’s Division of Infectious Disease physicians and research scientist teams were front and center, leading the way on the COVID-19 response. From important vaccine trial research and antibody testing validation, to serving as the faces of public health nationwide and in our state, Brown Medicine doctors continue to be at the forefront of medicine. “Addressing public and global health challenges is what our Division does, and the coronavirus pandemic was no exception,” states Dr. Louis B. Rice, a renowned infectious disease expert and president of Brown Medicine. “It’s exciting to know our research helps lead to the improvement of healthcare and medical treatments locally and around the world.” As with any public health crisis, communication is key. Shortly after the pandemic lock-down, Brown Medicine published online podcast interviews and short “Brown Medicine Minute” videos with physicians to help answer questions about viral transmission, vaccine efficacy, and how to determine whether symptoms were caused by a cold, allergies or the coronavirus. Today, COVID-19 vaccines are widely available and millions of people worldwide have been safely inoculated. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has over 12 months of data upon which to base its guidance to limit the spread and impact of the coronavirus. “The plethora of news sources available in these modern times is both a curse and a blessing,” notes Dr. Rice. “Some sources are more credible than others and, coupled with a healthy dose of skepticism mixed with political bias, cause the general public to be polarized either for or against getting the vaccine and helping to do their part to end the pandemic. Lots of questions remain in the minds of even the most well-informed.”
Here, Dr. Rice answers the top most pressing questions that are most commonly asked:
Q: Do masks work in preventing the spread of the virus, or should we all just wash our hands more frequently?
A: Evidence is clear at this point that masks work in preventing the spread from an infected person to an uninfected person. Perhaps more importantly, wearing a mask appears to lessen the chance that your infection will be symptomatic if it does occur. Without question, masks work. It’s always a good idea to wash your hands, but the major route of transmission of this virus is through the air.
Q: If I’m vaccinated, will this protect those who are unvaccinated?
A: Vaccinated people can become infected, as no vaccine is 100% effective in preventing infection. Regarding whether vaccinated people can spread infection, it appears that if you’re vaccinated, you will shed less virus so in that sense you will be less likely to spread the infection to others. Getting as many people as possible vaccinated is truly important
for public health. Many vaccinated people have illnesses or therapies that compromise their immune system. The vaccine may not be as protective for them so we always need to be careful.
Q: Is it safe for me to go back to work and be in crowds now that I’m vaccinated?
A: It is safe to go back to work. It’s reasonable for places of work to require unvaccinated employees to wear masks. Infection rates remain low in Rhode Island at this point, but they are rising. I would use common sense. In big, indoor crowds where ventilation isn’t great, I recommend wearing a mask. Walking through a park, I would not wear a mask. In most outdoor venues it is safe to go maskless. On the other hand, in a crowded stadium with screaming fans, I would probably favor caution and wear a mask. The most important thing is to get vaccinated. If everyone was vaccinated, we’d be in a much better position. We’re dealing with some who are and some who aren’t and that creates problems in limiting the spread of this virus.
Q: Will we face another surge of cases this Fall?
A: The new Delta variant is highly infectious. I’m concerned we’ll face another surge when we start spending more time indoors. Just as happened last summer, we are seeing significant flareups now in the South when people in these regions spend more time indoors. It is not likely to be a coincidence that the areas seeing spikes in cases are those with low vaccination rates. I think some type of new surge is likely to occur, but my hope is that high rates of vaccination in our area will limit the number of serious infections so that our healthcare system will not be overwhelmed.
Q: Will the vaccine I had early on during the pandemic protect against variants?
A: Thus far, yes. The Delta variant is now responsible for the majority of infections in this country. It’s 50% more infectious than the original coronavirus, meaning any person who’s infected is likely to infect more multiples of people. It’s nothing to be trifled with. Pfizer and Moderna vaccines appear to be protective against this variant. We’ll have to wait and see if the data supports the need for a booster shot, but thus far it appears as though protection lasts 6-8 months.
Q: Are the vaccines safe?
A: No one knows for sure the long-term impacts, but the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines appear to be safe in the short-term. It is true that they have not been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but these vaccines have been given to billions of people now. While adverse effects occur, these are rare and the vaccines are remarkably safe. Well over 90% of all physicians in this country have been vaccinated for COVID-19. We in the medical eld know how serious the disease can be. We have cared for many people who have died of COVID, and don’t know anyone who has died from a vaccine. Moreover, long-COVID syndrome can result in symptoms like fatigue and difficulty breathing for many months. Many who suffer this syndrome didn’t have a bad acute infection, yet still face the long-term symptoms. There’s a lot about this disease we don’t know, but we do know you should make every effort to avoid contracting it.