When the initial cases of Covid-19 were being reported from Wuhan, China, nobody had thought that the virus would result in a pandemic that would affect billions of people all around the globe. People lost their lives, jobs, life savings, and loved ones to this pandemic. Scientists have been working tirelessly to increase the efficacy of vaccines to neutralise the virus.
At the moment, there are several vaccines available in the market and a popular question that is popping up in people’s minds is, “If I am fully vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask and observe social distancing?” Let us dive into the question and figure out what is the right thing to do.
The Position of USA
We’ve all heard people say, “I will not wear a mask because I am fully vaccinated” which, to a certain degree, is acceptable. The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an advisory on 13 May 2021 that was controversial and confusing. It said that fully vaccinated people residing in the US didn’t need to wear masks. Being fully vaccinated in the US means that at least two weeks have passed after the final dose of the vaccine.
The CDC backed its advisory on studies showing that very few people were infected after being fully vaccinated and that their ability to spread the virus had also decreased. However, this advisory is only for the people of America. So, if you’re thinking, “I am fully vaccinated, and the CDC has said that I don’t need to wear a mask so I will stop wearing one,” then pause for a minute. Scientists all over the world and the WHO are still not convinced by the position taken by the CDC and have raised questions about this guideline.
Furthermore, CDC has cited studies done on Americans who have taken American vaccines, and the guideline also has a few conditions. The number of people vaccinated in the US is also very high, and a steady decline in new cases has been reported. Almost one-third of the population of the United States is vaccinated. But even after this, a lot of scepticism around the guideline has been prevailing.
The Position of WHO
The World Health Organisation has taken the opposite stance as compared to CDC and has urged people to continue wearing masks and practice Covid-19 safety measures even after they’re fully vaccinated. A lot of people think, “I am completely safe now that I am fully vaccinated,” but WHO Assistant Director-General for Access to Medicines and Health Products, Dr. Mariangela Simao, believes that people should not feel safe just because they are fully vaccinated. They still need to protect themselves and the people around them by wearing masks since there is still a lot to be uncovered about the virus. The vaccine alone cannot stop community transmission and the general public still needs to follow Covid-19 protocols like wearing masks, being in ventilated areas, maintaining hand hygiene, and observing social distancing.
Another reason behind WHO’s advice to keep wearing masks is that new and highly contagious variants of the Coronavirus—Delta and Delta Plus—are coming to the forefront. These variants have spread in many countries and have caused a lot of death and destruction.
In Israel, almost half of the people infected by the Delta variant had been fully vaccinated by Pfizer or the BioNTech vaccine. This had prompted the Israeli government to re-impose an indoor mask order.
What is the Delta Variant?
According to the WHO, the Delta variant of the SARS COV-2 virus is becoming the dominant variant worldwide. It was first found in India and had caused a deadly second wave in the country. This variant is now in 92 countries and it is the fastest and the most dangerous coronavirus strain found yet.
WHO has said that this strain will affect the most vulnerable people in places with a low rate of Covid vaccination. There have also been reports that the delta variant can cause more severe and different symptoms than other variants. Dr. Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the Health Emergencies Program of the WHO, stated that the delta variant is potentially more lethal. It has a high efficiency to be transmitted and find vulnerable people.
Position in India
The CDC guidelines do not have any legal applicability in India, but some people might think ‘I am fully vaccinated, and the CDC said it is fine, so I don’t need masks anymore”. However, Indian health experts and scientists have disagreed with the CDC’s guidelines and have opted to support WHO’s position instead. Dr. Shashank Joshi, an expert member on the task force of Covid-19 created by the Maharashtra government, is of the view that there is no adequate data to recommend people to stop wearing masks.
The Difference in the Situations
India’s situation is different from the situation in the US. The second wave of Covid-19 wreaked havoc in the country for about two months. Even though the second wave has subsided now, the number of daily cases is still higher as compared to the number of daily cases in the US. The percentage of people vaccinated in India is also smaller than the percentage vaccinated in the US.
There have been fewer studies on the impact of vaccines in India. The vaccines being used in India are also different; AstraZeneca and Bharat Biotech are the most prevalent vaccines in India, while Pfizer and Moderna are the prevalent vaccines in the US.
In India, a lot of new variants of the virus are circulating. Even though preliminary studies have found that Covishield and Covaxin are effective against the most dominant variant, B.1.617, there is still a lot of research left to be done in this regard. Newer variants continue to emerge and the B.1.617 variant itself has produced many sub-variants. Even though there is data that the vaccines in India have been effective, there is no data on how effective they will be on future variants of the virus.
Virologist Shahid Jamal has stated that telling people that it is okay to stop wearing masks after being fully vaccinated can give them the incentive to get vaccinated, but it can also send people the message that they don’t need to worry about the virus anymore. Therefore, even though many people might get careless and think, “I am fully vaccinated, so I am completely safe now,” removing the necessity to wear masks can cause even more destruction in India than what we saw in the last two waves.
Lesson from Seychelles
People who think, “I am fully vaccinated, so I can drop a mask” should look at the situation in Seychelles. Seychelles learned the hard way that even though all vaccines help avoid severe disease, the best vaccines will also prevent mild symptoms. Seychelles was the world’s most vaccinated country in April with more than 60% of its population being fully vaccinated. However, in May, the country faced a deadly surge in cases that resulted in overcrowded hospitals and frontline workers also falling sick. Out of all the new patients in this surge, 35% had been completely vaccinated.
If Seychelles had such a big surge even after vaccinating 60% of its population, you should stop thinking, “I am safe now because I am fully vaccinated,” since India has been able to vaccinate just 3% of its population as of July 2021 The nationwide immunity in Seychelles was almost 50% while in India, the nationwide immunity is just a little more than 2%.
The risk from new variants is also at an all-time high. With variants such as Delta, Delta plus, Kappa, and Lambda already discovered, the threat of a third wave looms over the country. Scientists and experts worldwide have already warned that India will face a third wave of the virus soon. So, in a scenario when just about 3% of the country has received the vaccine and the medical infrastructure almost collapsed in the second wave, it is highly advisable by all scientists that people don’t stop following Covid-19 protocols anytime soon.
Even though the different guidelines by different authorities might seem confusing at first, you should at least mask up until a significant proportion of the population gets fully vaccinated. We have all seen the horrors that the country faced in the second wave and to prevent such a grim situation from arising again, we need to keep following the existing protocols until it is safe for us not to. So, the next time a friend of yours says, ``I am fully vaccinated, so I don’t need to wear a mask”, tell them to be a responsible citizen and mask up.
Stay home. Stay Safe. Mask Up!
Authored by: Bhavishya Pahwa
About the Author: Bhavishya Pahwa is a budding writer who has always confided in a pen. He believes that art is a cure-all and that introspection followed by writing can add to the sanity of the world.