Opinion | Weighing risk when you’re vaccinated

By Lucas DiBlasi, Senior Staff Columnist

It seemed as though the COVID-19 pandemic was ending for a few brief weeks earlier this summer. But as students return for the fall term, a surge in caseloads and the return of the CDC’s indoor masking recommendation can make it seem like we’re back to square one.

We’re not.

Given the incredible effectiveness of vaccines, the risk of socializing normally and without a mask for vaccinated people has changed dramatically since the beginning of the pandemic. Instead of posing a high risk of infection and death, vaccinated individuals socializing in small groups with other vaccinated and non-vulnerable individuals pose little threat. Individuals can and should take that into account when balancing the risks of socializing with the benefits.

In previous case surges in Pennsylvania, the peak in deaths due to COVID-19 lagged behind the peak in new cases by about three days. If the current surge in cases — a seven-day average of about 2,500 new cases on Aug. 22 — were to be leading to deaths at the same rate as the last time cases were this high, we should be seeing an average of 40 deaths per day.

Instead, Pennsylvania is averaging about 15 deaths per day — still 15 too many deaths, but less than half of pre-vaccine levels. It’s not a coincidence that 68% of Pennsylvanians have received at least one dose of a vaccine. It’s because vaccines are amazingly effective.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit that compiles health policy information, recently analyzed states that have been tracking “breakthrough” infections among people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Not only is the breakthrough case rate well below 1%, hospitalization rate ranged from effectively zero to 1% and the death rate was effectively zero. 

Before vaccines were available, the primary risk to socializing normally and without a mask was to yourself and people that you consistently came in contact with. Given the complete lack of protection, the risk of contracting COVID-19 and becoming hospitalized, or giving the life-threatening disease to someone else, was intolerably high.

A secondary, but still very important, risk to living normally during the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic was spreading COVID-19 to people in your community, further worsening the pandemic.

But for a vaccinated individual, the health risks are now much smaller, and are also primarily to others, not oneself. Given the incredibly low risk of a vaccinated individual contracting COVID-19, let alone being hospitalized or dying from it, the main risk to socializing normally is now that of spreading COVID-19 to a vulnerable individual

Even then, you need to have a breakthrough case in order to spread COVID, and vaccinated individuals are infectious for a smaller period of time. Furthermore, if you were to get a breakthrough case, it would almost certainly be a mild case that boosts your immunity to future infections.

There is additional concern that vaccinated individuals socializing normally may increase the chance that COVID-19 could mutate. According to Tufts associate professor Marta Gaglia, variants of the disease are created when viruses replicate, since every time a virus replicates itself, there’s a small chance for errors that could make the virus more virulent, deadly or vaccine resistant.

Crucially, however, viruses need to be able to replicate in order for these errors to occur, meaning that for a vaccinated individual to incur this risk they would need to contract the virus. Once again, the morality of socializing normally goes back to the chance of breakthrough cases, which are incredibly rare.

It is true that we are still in the midst of the pandemic, and there are a lot of unknowns. The Delta variant — the predominant strain of COVID in the United States — is more easily spread than the original version, and appears to lead to more breakthrough cases. However, health professionals have stressed that the vaccines are holding their own against the variant, and breakthrough cases and deaths remain low for vaccinated individuals.

Unfortunately, much of America remains unvaccinated or otherwise vulnerable. That’s why the CDC has returned to recommending that vaccinated individuals wear masks — as public health experts, they’ve deemed it necessary for everyone to take whatever action, no matter how small, to reduce cases.

And let me be very clear — I am in no way anti-masking or advocating for Pitt students to gather in large crowds indoors at every opportunity. No matter your vaccination status, please wear a mask when the University or another institution requires it, if you come in contact with vulnerable people consistently or if it simply makes you feel good to reduce your risk of a breakthrough case from less than 1% to much less than 1%. 

But, in the particular circumstance that you’re vaccinated and living in a community mostly made up of vaccinated and non-vulnerable people, the risk of socializing normally is miniscule. As an individual, you’re allowed to engage in your own risk-management. Given these caveats, the risk to vaccinated people is currently small enough that it is often no longer a moral hazard to socialize normally.

The real way to eliminate COVID as an omnipresent threat is for a large majority of people to get vaccinated, and being clear about the incredible benefits of vaccination is a good way to encourage vaccinations. In the case of Pennsylvania, vaccinations are high — 81% of those 18 and older have had at least one dose — and the amount of vaccinated Pitt students is high and expected to rise.

In case anything changes, everyone should stay informed — from reputable sources — about the latest data on cases, variants and vaccines. But given the current information and a few caveats, vaccinated individuals pose very little threat to themselves and others, and should take that into account when balancing the risks against the necessities of socializing.

Lucas DiBlasi writes primarily about politics, economics and music. Feel free to email your opinions on Weezer (or whatever else) to him at [email protected].