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’ll talk about the plan for a second vaccine booster shot…
Fischman: The prospects of a new COVID wave and whether people will put on masks to stop it …
Lewis: And how to think about COVID risk when it comes to everyday activities.
Fischman: This week the FDA authorized a second booster shot, on top of the one given last year. That would be four shots total for me, Tanya. Why this new one?
Lewis: It happened sooner than I expected, Josh, although the scientific community had been debating whether additional booster shots were needed for some time. Normally, the FDA holds a meeting of its advisory committee before deciding whether to authorize vaccines or boosters, but that didn’t happen this time.
The move makes boosters available to adults age 50 and older, and anyone 12 and older who is immunocompromised, four months after their first booster shot. For people who had two shots and a booster, this would be their fourth shot. For some immunocompromised folks, this would be their fifth shot.
Fischman: That’s a bunch of jabs. Why does the FDA think we need this new one?
Lewis: It was based on some evidence that immune protection against severe disease wanes over time in these groups. A recent CDC report found that protection against hospitalization waned from 91 percent to 78 percent four months after a third dose.
But some experts are not convinced a second booster shot will significantly improve immunity. It may top up antibodies for a few months, but at a certain point with additional shots, we may see diminishing returns.
For those who haven’t gotten their first booster yet, that is important to do. And if you’re older or higher risk, you might want to consider getting a second booster after four months to top up your protection.
Lewis: It seems like many people have ditched their masks, and health officials are allowing it. But if a new COVID surge comes, Josh, will people put them on again?
Fischman: That’s a really important question, because some kind of surge is coming, and we know masks stop infections. The effectiveness of a good mask like an N95 is beyond dispute, as you’ve pointed out, Tanya.
And we will face more COVID. Infections and hospitalizations have started to rise in Europe. The new BA.2 variant is becoming more common there and in the U.S. And, like Europe, we’ve cut back on masks and on restrictions. So we’re likely to see something, a spike, a surge, or whatever you want to call it. It’s not clear how big it will be.
But if it gets above a certain level, we should put masks back on, according to the CDC. If cases and hospitalizations per 100,000 people in your area jump up—by 20 hospitalizations in a week, if you’re starting from a low level of cases—then put on a mask when you’re indoors with other people.
Lewis: But masks aren’t just health aids. During the pandemic they’ve become political symbols. Some people are really pro-mask and others are adamantly opposed to them.
Fischman: Exactly. So how’s that going to play out in the future? I asked an expert on mask attitudes, Emily Mendenhall, a medical anthropologist at Georgetown University. She just published a book called UNMASKED, based on research in communities in Iowa and in California.
Emily’s talked with us about masks on an earlier episode. She says anti-mask feelings stem partly from perceptions of low disease risk. People would unmask if they weren’t worried about themselves. Maybe they were younger and didn’t think the disease would make them sick. And partly it was political. People said they didn’t want governments dictating their behavior. They had legitimate worries about business closures and their ability to make a living. But it was also about making a public show of defiance. Masks got caught up in all that.
Pro-mask feelings came from an idea that we faced a collective risk. In the street, Emily says, people would talk about the need to work together and protect one another. And obviously they also felt they were in danger as individuals, and they trusted government guidelines.
As the pandemic has worn on, these collective worries have faded in many places. And mask-wearing has faded with them. Without actual rules such as mandates, people in those areas are unlikely to put masks back on.
But Emily says there’s another group we overlook: the “sometime maskers.” That’s about 1 in 3 people in her research. They’re all political moderates. Sometimes government does a good job, they say, and sometimes not. Sometimes the media is trustable, other times not so much. And sometimes they wear a mask. There are huge swaths of Americans who would put on a mask if they were around someone with a weak immune system, or someone older, or at risk in some way.
So the focus should be on sometime maskers. That’s who’s willing to listen to mask promotion if COVID starts to peak in their communities. It’s a sizeable group, Emily says. They could be a part of making mask-wearing seem normal, especially in times of danger, and making it normal is key.
Emily still thinks mandates are important, but she understands there’s a lot of resistance. If these sometimes-maskers put on N95s, they could start a whole surge of protection.
Fischman: Clearly people are growing tired of restrictions as we head into Pandemic Year Three. Many are eager to get back to doing things they enjoy again. Is there a smart way to evaluate any risks as we venture out more often?
Lewis: We’re definitely getting to the point, Josh, where people are tired of wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding the people and places they enjoy. But the virus hasn’t gone away, and it isn’t likely to anytime soon. There will always be some level of risk, but as with everything in life, we have to find ways to balance risks with benefits.
One of our freelancers, Sri De-va-bhak-tuni, is working on a story for us about this. He asked a number of experts in epidemiology, risk assessment, and related fields how they make their own decisions about COVID risk.
We can think about risk in three different ways, they said: there’s personal risk, which is the risk of you or people in your household contracting COVID; there’s community risk, which is the likelihood of encountering someone with COVID in your local community; and there’s exposure risk, which accounts for the chances of getting COVID from a particular setting based on things like airflow and the behavior of other people.
Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas, Houston, says that age is the biggest personal risk factor, followed by having certain comorbidities or being immunocompromised. She estimates that vaccinated and boosted people in their 60s have a 10 times higher likelihood of dying from a severe breakthrough case than 18- to 49-year-olds. People who are at higher risk should talk with their doctor about what risks are reasonable. There may be some activities that are safe if you take precautions such as wearing an N95 mask, for example.
Then there’s community risk – in other words, the risk that the person next to you has COVID. There’s not one metric that perfectly captures this risk, but you can look at things like daily cases per 100,000 residents. Jetelina considers a figure below 50 cases per 100,000 to be lower risk, and she might feel comfortable removing her mask indoors. Others use a lower threshold of 10 cases per 100,000. But since not everyone who has COVID is getting tested, a better measure may be the test positivity rate. Anything above 5 percent is considered high risk.
Fischman: What about different settings, like bars or movie theaters or a local park? Where you are affects risk, doesn’t it?
Lewis: That’s right. Exposure risk is a spectrum—some settings are safer than others. Depending on your personal and community risk levels, you might be more or less comfortable doing things in certain settings.
Gyms, for example, are probably one of the highest risk places, because people are exercising and expelling more aerosols, which spread the virus, says Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and an expert on airborne transmission of viruses. Bars are risky too, because they may be crowded and have lots of people talking loudly. But museums and movie theaters might be safer because they tend to have higher ceilings, so there’s more air dilution, and fewer people are talking.
If you do go to a bar or restaurant and you want to protect yourself, experts say you can wear a mask and remove it briefly to take sips or bites, without increasing the risk too much. And N95s protect you pretty well, if they’re well-fitted to your face.
At the end of the day, you have to decide how to balance these risks with the benefits of doing the things that make life worth living.
Lewis: Now you’re up to speed. Thanks for joining us. Our show is edited by Jeff DelViscio.
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.]