The COVID Tribes

I got my booster COVID shot and with it joined the Boosted Tribe. I want to be in this new game, but there is nobody to tell me what the rules are. The CDC website doesn’t help much. They just consider me “vaccinated” but I know that I’m less likely to catch “it” than I was before the shot.

I don’t know what to think of the Unvaccinated Tribe. I have no easy way to convince them to share or even understand my trust in the people who developed the vaccine or the government who organized its distribution. And I don’t feel that I can trust my immune system as they trust theirs. I can only accept in wonderment how they can be undisturbed by the stories we all hear of illness clusters and deaths among people we know.

But that’s how it is, and as COVID spreads faster among the unvaccinated, we need to decide how best to protect ourselves from them. We know the elements: masks, hand washing, ventilation, avoiding crowds. But let’s apply them to the problem at hand, which is protecting ourselves from the disease spreading so dangerously right now in the Unvaccinated Tribe.

So—any mask partially blocks infection going out, as any cloth catches droplets. COVID is wise to that, and we now know it spreads mostly as “aerosols” which means particles so small they stay suspended in air for many minutes and can spread over a great distance. (Forget that six-foot stuff for now.) Only a high-filtration mask can protect us. Fortunately, they are easy to buy now. I get mine from Amazon. There are big differences between brands in how they fit your face and how easy they are to breathe through. One thing is in our favor here. As we breath in, the edges tighten against our skin, and so even a sloppy fit protects “us” pretty well from “them.”

The virus is suspended in air, and thus invisible. So, ventilation includes trying very hard not to breath in the air an unvaccinated and maybe infected person might have breathed out. Yes, even someone who was in the room and left. This pretty well excludes restaurants for us Boosted, until some creative restaurateur is able to advertise a fully vaccinated staff and customers who are willing to share vaccination status. I go into stores masked (people don’t stare as much as they used to) and if they are crowded, I make my trips brief or put them off. I try to overcome the awkwardness of asking healthcare people if they are vaccinated before they put their faces next to mine or work on my mouth. Outdoors is easier, especially when there’s a breeze. Funerals and other crowded events are a bit more risky and I try to simply park myself upwind from the others. Each situation requires a new calculation of risk vs how much pleasure or reward there is in the activity.

The fear we had about COVID spread on surfaces, packages, and hands turns out to have been greatly exaggerated. I’ll still wash hands or use sanitizer before eating and after touching surfaces or even shaking hands with people I’m not close to, but I’m putting my energy into masking and aerosol control.

Our risks are more or less additive. Yes, one can catch COVID from the one dinner with vaccinated and boosted friends (I also ask people if they are generally COVID-careful) but the more times you take off your mask around others, each episode minimally risky, the higher the total risk becomes. And though it’s extremely unlikely that a boosted person can spread COVID to others, I know that being careful for my own benefit further reduces the risk to those around me.

Follow the news! Eventually enough Unvaccinated people in Lycoming County will get the disease and be unable to spread virus until they get it again next year or a new variant comes along. And a few will get vaccinated before then, or many will if the mandates are effective. The supply of monoclonal antibodies will improve and the new effective antiviral pills will be approved. Instant tests will be sold everywhere and be inexpensive, likely by the end of the year. At that time, we Vaccinated folks can protect ourselves by testing after exposure or when we have symptoms and getting treated promptly if positive. It won’t matter as much to us that we are surrounded by the Unvaccinated carrying disease through our community.

Maybe we can’t end COVID. But we can reduce our risk and return to more normal lives. That’s what all of us, in every Tribe, want and need.

Michael Gross is a retired physician from Hughesville, Michael Heyd a retired medical librarian from Fairfield Township, and Chris Smith, a retired prevention education/highway safety specialist for Lycoming County, All are members of Let’s end COVID!
Published: 11/13/21

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