The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed its guidance to once again recommend that even vaccinated people start masking indoors in areas of the country with high and substantial coronavirus spread. Key to their decision was a study that shows that fully vaccinated people can still transmit the Delta variant.
At the same time, Disney, Netflix, Google, Walmart and the federal government announced plans to implement some type of vaccine requirement for employees returning to in-person work.
Is it safe for vaccinated people to return to work if vaccine mandates are in place? What if they are not — is masking enough, and what if others around you are unvaccinated and not wearing masks? What about workers who have children too young to be vaccinated?
To help us navigate these uncertain times, we turned to CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen. Wen is an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She’s also author of a new book, “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.”
CNN: We know that breakthrough infections can happen. How does it help to have vaccine mandates at work if the vaccinated can also spread Covid-19?
Dr. Leana Wen: Vaccine requirements will help make workplaces much safer for everyone. Here’s why. There is a lot of misunderstanding about what the CDC’s new data is showing. The agency found that vaccinated people infected with Covid-19 may carry just as much virus as those who are unvaccinated and have Covid-19.
However, the chance of actually contracting Covid-19 is greatly reduced if you’re vaccinated. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, you have an estimated eight-fold reduction in risk of having coronavirus if you’re vaccinated compared to if you’re not — and an estimated 25-fold reduction in risk of having severe enough disease to cause hospitalization and death, which is truly remarkable.
CNN: What if the workplace allows people to opt out of vaccination through testing?
Wen: It depends on how frequent the testing is. Testing is not a strategy that prevents someone from contracting Covid-19. However, if there is frequent testing, it could pick up on infections quickly and prevent that person from spreading it. I’d feel more comfortable with twice-weekly testing than weekly testing. Either the antigen test or PCR test should be fine, as long as it’s authorized by the FDA.
Test less frequently and I think you get into a situation of false reassurance. Just because someone tested negative a week ago doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have contracted coronavirus in the meantime. And if they are unvaccinated, they have a higher chance of getting Covid-19 and therefore of passing it on to you.
CNN: Should workplaces require both vaccinations and masking?
Wen: This is an interesting question, and one that the CDC has not really weighed in on. Right now, the CDC is saying that indoor masking should occur in areas of high or substantial Covid-19 transmission, and they are not saying that if everyone is vaccinated, masks are no longer needed.
I think this is a mistake. The risk of vaccinated people transmitting to other vaccinated people is low. At some point, we have to accept that we’re not going to get zero risk. Workplaces need to protect their employees, and a vaccine requirement is a very good level of protection. If a workplace truly has an enforced vaccine mandate with proof of vaccination, I think they could make masking optional instead of required.