Q&A with Dr. Fox about CDC mask guidance, COVID-19 vaccine

Deputy Health Officer Dr. Mark Fox sat down with ABC57 to answer some of the most common questions that have come up about the new CDC mask guidelines and how it affects local counties. He also addresses concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Q: The CDC says, in areas with substantial and high transmission, they recommend that fully vaccinated individuals wear a mask in public indoor settings. Can you explain what is considered "substantial “and “high transmission”?

A: The CDC defines two different criteria that go into defining transmission rates. The first is the case rates and they base it on the number of cases per 100,000 population over the previous week. To compare say Elkhart County to St. Joseph County, the standard is to base it on 100,000 population. When we exceed 50 cases per 100,000 population over the preceding week, that will move us into the substantial category. Right now [in St. Joseph County] we’re at 48.6, we are a hair's breadth away.

Q: So where and when do you think people should mask up? And what’s the logic behind fully vaccinated people masking up?

A: The logic behind it is two-fold. One, unfortunately with the change in mask guidance that was issued in May from the CDC and the most local jurisdictions followed it, it really is built on the honor system. You know, we recommended that anyone who’s unvaccinated be masked. Less than half of our county right now is vaccinated but when I go to the grocery store, I usually see one other person in a mask. That means a lot of unvaccinated people are going without a mask for the last two months, so that’s contributed to the spread of disease here and all over the country.

Q: The CDC now recommends all teachers and students wear masks in school, regardless of vaccination status. Will kids need to wear masks in schools come the fall?

A: We’ve recommended that schools follow the CDC guidance which, until yesterday, was anyone who’s unvaccinated should wear a mask. For elementary school students, none of them are even eligible for the vaccine yet so that would’ve meant that all elementary school students should be in a mask. The reality is only 22 percent of students in the 12 to 16 year age range in St. Joseph County have chosen to be vaccinated. That means the vast majority of students would be unvaccinated. Until yesterday, our recommendation was that they should all be in a mask [if unvaccinated.] I know people don’t want to hear it but I do think it’s the right recommendation because our priority should be in person education. So, to do in person education safely for a population that is largely unvaccinated, the way to do that most safely is to be in masks.

Q: Many people believe the choice to vaccinate or not is about personal protection. But how important is it to control the spread of COVID-19?

A: Delta variant aside, for people who are fully vaccinated, they are less likely to be seriously ill, be hospitalized or die if they are vaccinated. They also are less likely to transmit it than people who are unvaccinated. So, while getting vaccinated has important outcomes for the person who’s been vaccinated, it also protects other people because even if I were to become infected, I’m less likely to transmit it.

Q: Let’s say I’m not vaccinated and now everyone, included fully vaccinated people, have to wear masks again. What’s the incentive for me to get the shot now? Life hasn’t changed.

A: The most important thing to consider is that it dramatically reduces the risk of winding up in the hospital or dying because of COVID. Those are the benefits people can expect if they get the COVID vaccine. The challenge is that the Delta variant is so much more contagious than the other strains and so even with masks, it increases the risk that people are going to become infected.

Q: Now let’s say I am vaccinated. Was getting the shot a waste of time if unvaccinated people have not eradicated the virus?

A: I don’t think getting the shot is a waste of time because of those benefits. Yea, you might get infected but you’re not going to wind up in the hospital and you’re not going to die. The other thing is in small gatherings, you can invite fully vaccinated people into your home and be unmasked. It’s really in the large public spaces, indoors, concert venues, churches, movie theatres. Any place where a large group of people are gathered for an extended period of time.

Q: Do you think we’ll see places start to require vaccines or masks to come and shop or to come and dine?

A: I hold out some hope that some of the national retailers will get on board and say this is the best way to keep our employees and customers safe, you’ll have to wear a mask. It would be great for public health if national retailers were to reinforce that expectation again right now. At a local level, absent a national retailer, each store owner is going to be left to their own devices and at a policy level that gets really hard to implement.

Q: There are a lot of rumors and misinformation floating around about the vaccine. One of those being that the vaccine causes infertility. Is there any proof of that?

A: There’s no data that I’ve seen. I’ve reviewed commentary from fertility specialists and OBGYNs that debunk this. There’s a theoretical basis for that concern but none of this has been borne out by any of the data coming out of vaccine trials or in clinical use of the vaccine. There’s no evidence to support that the COVID vaccine causes infertility.

Q: For anyone out there still wondering, is the COVID vaccine safe?

A: Yeah, I think the safety profile really has been very good for the COVID vaccine. I’ll admit, I was initially concerned because it was developed much more quickly than any other vaccine I’ve seen in my professional lifetime. I was a little skeptical on the front end but the vaccine efficacy data is phenomenal. Think about the normal flu shot, it’s about 40 to 60 percent effective in any given year. The COVID vaccine is 80 to 90 percent effective. The efficacy data is phenomenal but then the safety profile also has shown to be really good across the board with the COVID vaccine. That isn’t to say there haven’t been some adverse events reported but on the whole, the safety profile has been really good for the COVID vaccine.

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