Tanya Lewis: Hi, and welcome to COVID, Quickly, a Scientific American podcast series!
Josh Fischman: This is your fast-track update on the COVID pandemic. We bring you up to speed on the science behind the most urgent questions about the virus and the disease. We demystify the research and help you understand what it really means.
Lewis: I’m Tanya Lewis.
Fischman: I’m Josh Fischman.
Lewis: And we’re Scientific American’s senior health editors. Today we’re talking about whether people need vaccine booster shots.
Fischman: Also, now that your boss has reopened your office, how to tell if it’s COVID-safe. Plus some things you can do to make it safer.
This week Pfizer, which makes a very effective two-shot vaccine, met with U.S. officials to say a third shot, a booster, might be needed. Health officials say it isn’t—yet. So a lot of people, including me, are confused. Help me out, Tanya.
Lewis: It is confusing. Pfizer caused quite a stir when it announced it was applying for emergency use authorization for a third, booster shot, claiming the decision was based on its own data on waning antibody levels over time, as well as data on breakthrough infections in Israel.
But the FDA and CDC responded quickly, putting out a statement saying that booster shots were not needed yet and that they would need to see more data before saying whether and when we might need more shots. On Monday the heads of several government health agencies met with Pfizer to discuss this, but there has not been any change in the recommendations yet.
Many scientists say it’s premature to be calling for boosters when we know that two doses of the mRNA vaccines (and other vaccines) are effective—including against the Delta variant that’s been sweeping the country and the world in recent weeks. At the least, they say they need to see the data from Pfizer. The company stands to profit from making more vaccine doses, so we can’t just take their word for it that boosters are needed.
Fischman: Don’t the vaccines already provide long-lasting immunity?
Lewis: Yes, several studies have shown that two doses of the vaccines produce immunity that lasts for many months and perhaps for years. Antibody levels may decline (and that’s expected), but your immune system also has B cells and T cells that can remember and fight off an infection. And even if you do get infected after being vaccinated, you’re far less likely to develop severe disease or die from it.
Still, many experts say we may need boosters at some point. And people who are immunocompromised or the elderly may need them sooner. Another big question is whether to give people a booster of the original vaccine or wait to give them a booster specific to the Delta variant, which is also in the works. What’s clear for now is: we need more data. And if you’re not already vaccinated, now’s the time!
It’s summer in the U.S., and nearly half the country is fully vaccinated. Many companies are reopening offices and telling workers to come back. But virus cases are ticking back up, especially in places where fewer people are immunized. How can people figure out if their office is safe?
Fischman: A lot of people are wondering about that. We’ve been told to avoid crowds for so long that the idea of sitting in a shared workspace for eight hours ratchets up the anxiety, doesn’t it? I think it’s normal to be a bit freaked out. However, there are several things you can look for in your office that make it a safer place, and I’ll run through some of them.
The big one is vaccination. If you’re vaccinated, that blocks almost all infections. CDC guidelines say you don’t have to wear a mask or stay six feet apart in offices.
Legally, the U.S. allows your company to ask you for proof of vaccination and to tell everyone they need to have shots. There are some loopholes, though. A big one is that about half a dozen states have passed laws blocking vaccine mandates or vaccine passports. Those rules count. You can check the Web site of a group called the National Academy for State Health Policy to find out your state’s status.
Another exception is that companies need to accommodate workers who can’t get vaccinated, say for medical reasons. Businesses need to give those people an isolated spot in the office or let them stay home.
If your office has a mix of unvaccinated and vaccinated workers, then your company should use risk reduction measures such as mask wearing and strong ventilation.
And let’s talk about that ventilation. The office AC and heating systems should completely replace indoor air with outdoor air three or four times every hour, say environmental engineers.
Those systems need good filters, too. Look for a rating called a MERV number, and your filters should have numbers that go to 11 at least.
You might not be able to find out this info from your company. In that case, you can check air turnover yourself by measuring carbon dioxide from people breathing out. A handheld carbon dioxide meter goes for about 200 bucks. Look for levels less than 800 parts per million. That indicates good air exchange.
If you feel your company is doing the wrong thing, you have the right to complain, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act. And your boss can’t punish you for doing so, says the law.
On SciAm.com, our contributor Christie Aschwanden runs through all these tips, plus a bunch more. Read her story. It can take a little edge off the worries about going back.
Lewis: Now you’re up to speed. Thanks for joining us.
Fischman: Come back in two weeks for the next episode of COVID, Quickly! And check out SciAm.com for updated and in-depth COVID news.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]