Although restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and even amusement parks are re-opening across Southern California, a UCI Health infectious disease expert urges continued masking and physical distancing this spring until significantly more people have been vaccinated against the disease.
In vacation spots such as Miami and elsewhere around the nation, media reports have shown throngs of people mingling without masks, eager to enjoy warmer weather and get back to pre-pandemic life.
But with only 14% of Americans fully vaccinated — Orange and Los Angeles counties are at 14% and 13%, respectively — this is no time to relax, said Dr. Susan Huang, medical director of Epidemiology and Infection Prevention for UCI Health.
Experts believe the pandemic won't be brought under control until 85% of the population is fully protected against the coronavirus.
“We are very concerned that spring fever will outpace vaccinations,” Huang said. “None of these numbers should be reassuring. And those who have been vaccinated need to remember that most people have not yet had that opportunity.”
The cost of dropping safety measures
State and federal health officials recognize that when many Americans stopped observing safety protocols last spring and summer, a sustained second wave of infections greater than the first continued into the fall.
A third even more severe wave overwhelmed much of Southern California starting in December, mere weeks after Thanksgiving and spiking again after the Christmas holidays.
Huang noted that several northeastern states now are experiencing a worrisome uptick in new COVID-19 cases as the weather warms, suggesting the potential for a possible fourth wave.
So while California is relaxing restrictions as the rate of new cases declines, universal masking, physical distancing and hand hygiene safety protocols will remain in place for businesses, restaurants and other public venues. That includes some amusement parks, which are expected to reopen beginning in April to limited numbers of patrons.
Outdoor parties and large gatherings are still not allowed.
For those who have been unable to visit loved ones, one bright spot is guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It permits a few fully vaccinated people to meet indoors without masks.
It also allows a fully vaccinated person to meet with an unmasked, unvaccinated person from one other household if that person is at low risk for severe COVID-19. For example, a vaccinated grandmother can give a healthy grandchild a hug.
“This is such an important and much needed step for our emotional and societal health,” Huang said. “But we must remember this does not translate to group meetings or parties, and it does not apply to outdoor locations where you cannot tell who is or is not vaccinated.”
California’s low vaccination rate is due to a supply shortage combined with distribution problems related to the recent deep freeze endured elsewhere in the nation. This means the state Department of Public Health’s expanded priority list allowing people ages 16 to 64 with chronic diseases to receive the COVID-19 vaccines, effective March 15, has been slowed by the lack of availability.
More vaccines on the way
Huang expects a surge in vaccine supplies in April as production and distribution has ramped up.
Even so, people need to remember that full protection takes about six weeks for the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the first to get emergency authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in December.
A single-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, which recently received FDA emergency authorization, is also expected to become more available in the weeks ahead. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which uses a harmless virus to make the coronavirus spike protein, is less effective, providing 66% protection from moderate to severe cases.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines offer protection of 95% and 94%, respectively, for all types of symptomatic COVID-19 disease. However, the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is considered a good alternative when follow-through with a second dose may be unlikely or unwanted.
Huang urged people to be patient for a little longer so that our entire community, especially the most vulnerable, is protected until the vaccines are widely available to all adults.
“We have come so far together, but we're not home free yet,” she said. “We need to hang tight just a little bit longer.”