This Is Who Is Most Likely to Give You COVID Right Now, White House Warns
The biggest threat to our safety doesn't look like a threat at all.
Now that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), help is on the way. But experts warn that we face a dark winter ahead, with a virus that's currently showing no signs of abating. Deborah Birx, MD, the White House coronavirus-response coordinator, has a message for us in the meantime: the greatest threat most likely to spread COVID in these coming months doesn't look like a threat at all. It comes in the form of asymptomatic carriers, who are by far more likely to spread coronavirus than those who display recognizable symptoms.
In a Dec. 8 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Birx stressed this point and implored the public to take precautions, even when they believe themselves and others to be safe. "People really need to understand how common asymptomatic spread is and that the majority of spread is from people who don't know they're infected being with others in close quarters with their mask off," she explained.
Birx added that when people do present with typical COVID symptoms, they're more likely to intentionally isolate, or at least stay home as a means of recovery. "Sick people by and large go to bed, so they may only spread for a couple of days. When you're asymptomatic you don't know you're infected," Birx said, noting that those individuals may spread COVID to others for seven to 10 days—both at home and in public.
Until the vaccine reaches the general population, which Anthony Fauci, MD, says should start in "March, beginning of April" and continue through the early summer, Birx argued that "the only prevention we have" is behavioral change. "We're seeing transmission moving from public spaces into private spaces as people gather unmasked… If we don't change how we gather, we're going to continue to have this surge across the country," Birx said.
As many people make in-person holiday plans despite warnings from experts, this will mean limiting how many people gather at once, minimizing time spent with others indoors, and wearing masks whenever interacting with those outside of the household—even family members. Read on for more insights from Birx's recent interview, and for more on how to navigate the holidays amid COVID this year, check out This Is the Biggest Mistake You Can Make Holiday Planning During COVID.
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Birx spoke at length about how misinformation about the virus is damaging public health efforts. "I think we need to be much more aggressive about addressing the myths that are out there—that COVID doesn't really exist, or the fatalities are somehow made up, or the hospitalizations are for other diseases, not COVID," explained Birx. "Masks do not hurt you—they help you. We know that they help us, as well as helping others," she added. And for more on fighting COVID misinformation, check out The COVID Test Myth You Need to Stop Believing, Epidemiologist Says.
It's precisely because of the prevalence of COVID myths that education will need to be front and center in the effort to get our nation vaccinated. "We should be working right now… [on] getting out that information that these vaccines are safe, they're highly effective, and we know that they prevent serious disease," Birx explained. "There's nothing more important than that."
Now that the FDA has approved the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use, experts have turned their attention to who will receive its first doses. "Healthcare workers that have vulnerabilities—hypertension, diabetes, obesity—no matter where they work in the system… if they have exposure risk, which they clearly do in hospitals and clinics, should be on that first priority list," said Birx. And for more on who's first in line for the vaccine, check out These 5 People Will Get the COVID Vaccine First, Dr. Fauci Says.
Birx further explained that groups outside of healthcare workers will need to be prioritized based on their risk level. "This vaccine, after the healthcare workers, needs to go to the most vulnerable individuals that are most susceptible to infection, to hospitalization, and mortality," she said. "And we know who, precisely, those are. We know that these are Black and brown communities. We know that these are, critically, Native American communities. And these communities have to be prioritized," she said.