Q&A

Returning to campus? Here’s what two UB physicians say you need to know

UBNOW STAFF

Published July 16, 2021

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For the past year and a half, most UB employees have been working remotely.

That is starting to change, however, with the university previously announcing that employees should return to campus by Aug. 2 in anticipation of the upcoming fall semester, which will be a return to normalcy following new SUNY-approved health and safety guidelines.

While vaccination rates are high and COVID-19 cases are low in Erie County — home to UB’s three campuses — employees preparing to return to campus may have questions regarding health and safety.

UBNow asked Thomas Russo, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Medicine, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and a physician with UBMD Internal Medicine, and Fred Archer, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and a physician with UBMD Pediatrics, both of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, to provide some answers.

Before returning to campus, both doctors strongly encourage all employees to be fully vaccinated, which means getting both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or the single shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

headshot of Tom Russo.

How long will the vaccine protect me?

Russo: We don’t know for sure because the vaccines are new. The vaccines induce an even better immune response than natural infection, which we know lasts 8-10 months. So, extrapolating from that, we think that people who are vaccinated should be able to get at least a year, and possibly more than a year of protection against COVID-19.

What about the variants? How do we know the vaccines will protect against them?

Russo: To date, all of the available vaccines provide a significant degree of protection — minimizing serious disease that results in hospitalization and bad outcomes — against all of the variants identified so far. The vaccines aren’t perfect, but they are really quite good. However, it is important to note that if you only received one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine it is critical to get that second dose to be optimally protected. In particular, a single dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine confers a low degree of protection against the delta variant. If you are not vaccinated, but you have been infected with COVID-19 previously, you definitely need to be vaccinated because natural immunity may not protect you against some of these variants. Most recently, more than 99% of COVID-related deaths in this country have occurred in the unvaccinated.

headshot of Fred Archer.

Archer: We know that COVID spreads in adult and pediatric populations. As of right now, only the Pfizer vaccine is approved in pediatric patients older than age 12. By improving vaccine rates in all eligible populations, we increase protection and decrease transmission to groups who may not be able to get the vaccine at this time.

Should I be concerned about surface transmission of the virus on campus and elsewhere?

Archer: From a cleanliness standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with wiping down your phone, computers and surfaces you touch, but the data show that this virus spreads primarily through the air.

Russo: While spreading the virus by touching inanimate objects and surfaces is theoretically possible, it’s really a trivial mode of transmission and there have been no such documented cases. Respiratory spread is the primary mode of infection. Being indoors with other infected individuals presents the greatest risk, particularly for those who are unvaccinated and not wearing a mask.

What steps should the immunocompromised take?

Russo: If you are immune compromised, it’s best to talk to your health care provider. Not all immune-compromising conditions are equal. We do know that certain ones, such as transplant patients and people who are on certain immune-compromising drugs, seem to have a less than optimal immune response to vaccination. These people should definitely get vaccinated, but they also should take precautions in high-risk settings, such as indoors, where there may be people who are unvaccinated. Those precautions include wearing a mask and practicing social distancing in those settings. Studies are ongoing to determine the relative risk for each of these groups and whether a booster shot would be beneficial.

Is it safe to gather in conference rooms unmasked?

Russo: It is if everyone in the room is fully vaccinated.

In addition to getting vaccinated, what can I do to continue to protect myself and others?

Archer: If you have a cough or a cold, put on a mask; that’s the right thing to do. You might feel fine, but you might give it someone who might not feel fine.

Russo: Share your vaccine experience with family members or friends who remain unvaccinated. Hearing about your experience with vaccination may help them overcome their hesitancy. The overall safety of our community is directly related to the number of people vaccinated.

Some people don’t want to get vaccinated because they say we don’t know the long-term effects. Isn’t that true?

Russo: Most adverse effects due to vaccination will occur within the first one to two months. There are no historical examples of vaccinations causing an adverse event outside of that timeframe. However, even if at some point down the line, we identify some uncommon, long-term consequence from the COVID vaccine, the long-term consequences of COVID-19 are exponentially greater than from vaccination.

Here’s why: Since this virus can affect virtually any organ in your body, there are potential long-term consequences as well. When you get infected with this virus, you may take a hit on your lungs, your heart, your kidneys, your brain, your endocrine organs. Therefore, the likelihood of long-term consequences are certainly far, far greater with COVID-19 than with any effects not yet seen with the vaccine. In terms of potential long-term consequences, the risk-benefit strongly favors getting vaccinated versus getting infected. And if you don’t get vaccinated, you will get infected. This virus is not going to go away.

Archer: I agree completely with Dr. Russo. The biggest message with our long history of pediatric vaccination is that the long-term benefits far outweigh the risks.  

The COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out so quickly. Are they still considered experimental?

Archer: These vaccines have been through a huge battery of safety tests. They were tested in 40,000 people and now more than 400 million doses have been given. So, if you’re concerned about their safety, these are some of the safest vaccines we’ve made.

Russo: Emergency use authorization (EUA) of our vaccines does not equate to being experimental. EUA status was obtained after two months of safety data; full licensure requires six months of safety data. After 400 million doses have been administered, the safety profile of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines looks fabulous. It’s important to note that both Pfizer and Moderna are now applying for full licensure and I fully expect that both of these will receive it. We now have six months of safety data and the data look really, really good.

What about the scary stuff on social media that says the vaccines can make you infertile or get into your DNA?

Russo: There is absolutely no evidence that the vaccines cause infertility or that it gets into your DNA. These fears are propagated on social media, which is not a reliable source of information on vaccines or COVID-19. Instead, rely on trusted sources: Erie County, New York State, the CDC, or alternatively, an individual you trust. It could be a primary care physician or a pastor, but it’s critical that the trusted individual is someone who gives you reliable information.

Archer: Misinformation and disinformation are one of the biggest hurdles to address. The best way to get real, evidence-based information is to rely on trusted sources that do this work on a daily basis. The best person to start with is your own primary care physician. They know the medicine and the data, and you should have a good rapport with them. They can give you information or recommend the most accurate, up-to-date information from the CDC or the New York State or Erie County departments of health. Always know the sources of the information you’re getting.

Why should I get vaccinated if New York State is getting closer to herd immunity?

Russo: The concept of herd immunity just means that we will have cases at a very manageable, low number. This very low number of cases will oscillate up and down, depending on the season. COVID-19 is going to become an endemic virus; I’m almost certain of that. We will see a smaller number of cases in the summer months and a bump in cases in the cool weather months when we spend more time indoors where the virus spreads so well. If this is your justification for not getting vaccinated, you are sadly mistaken. Now is the time to get vaccinated while cases remain at low levels in Western New York. Remember, it takes two weeks after your second shot to achieve full protection. For the unvaccinated, your risk of getting infected will undoubtedly increase as we move into the fall.

Archer: There are populations, such as those under the age of 12, who aren’t approved yet for the vaccine, or individuals that can’t receive the vaccine. The more people that are vaccinated, the more we’re protecting everyone, including those that can’t.

I have already been infected, so why should I get vaccinated?

Russo: The immunity conferred by natural infection is much more variable compared to vaccination, particularly if your infection was asymptomatic or mild. Further, an increasing body of data supports that the beta variant (first described in South Africa), the gamma variant (first described in Brazil) and perhaps the delta variant can re-infect those infected with an earlier version of the virus. It is clear that if you were previously infected and then get vaccinated, you will have a tremendous immune response that is predicted to be highly protective and long-lasting.

Bottom line: Reasons why you should get vaccinated

Archer: The fewer places the virus can live the better. We owe our students, staff and faculty a safe and healthy working environment we can all enjoy. This is about protecting everybody.

READER COMMENT

Many thanks to UB, Dr. Archer and Dr. Russo for this interview. It is something that I will definitely share with others. It is clear and understandable. Moreover, I want to thank the good doctors for taking the time to share their expertise with our community.


Bernadette Gargano