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Are social gatherings safe during COVID-19? 

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered how people interact with one another. Early on in the pandemic, a study published in the British Medical Journal found that physical distancing was effective in reducing COVID-19 transmission 

But since coronavirus transmission can be airborne, it’s critical to understand the risk one takes when engaging in social gatherings based on recent emerging evidence. 

How is COVID-19 transmitted in social gatherings?

While the CDC recommends staying home if you feel sick, that might be too late in some cases. 

In a 2021 study published in JAMA, one analytical model found that 59% of all cases were transmitted by asymptomatic individuals, with 35% of spread cases coming from presymptomatic individuals and 24% coming from individuals who never develop symptoms. 

Are “pandemic pods” safe alternatives?

After the closure of schools, daycares, and other child-centric programs, families sought to find a way to socialize and educate their children while staying connected with others. Thus, the “pandemic pod” was born – a small group of 3-4 households who agree to socially isolate from others while gathering to study and socialize. 

While pandemic pods provided temporary relief from social isolation, they are not recommended by public health officials as a safe practice. Gathering with others can provide a false sense of security, and it only takes one infection to expose the entire group. An October 2020 study from the CDC found that secondary COVID-19 infections within households were frequent, with 75 percent of secondary household infections occurring within 5 days. 

If you do choose to participate in a pandemic pod, keep the group small, try to meet outdoors while physically distancing and wearing masks, and minimize exposure to other individuals who aren’t in your pod.

Are outdoor events safer?

Outdoor events are considerably less risky than indoor gatherings. One study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases found that the odds of transmission in a closed environment was 18.7 times greater compared to an open-air environment. However, simply being outdoors doesn’t mean that you can’t be exposed to SARS-CoV-2. 

According to a review of research published in the Oxford Journal of Infectious Diseases, factors such as duration and frequency of personal contact, lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), and occasional indoor gathering during a largely outdoor experience were associated with reports of COVID-19 infection. 

Being in close proximity to others, not wearing a mask, and being near others who are talking, singing, or speaking loudly can increase the risk of contracting the virus. As with pandemic pods, you can alleviate the risk by wearing masks and staying physically distanced from others. 

How will a vaccine impact social gatherings?

Vaccinations are key in moving towards a place where we can gather safely again. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were proven to have 94% and 95% efficacy against the virus, with both vaccines requiring two doses. More recently, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was found to have 66.3% efficacy, and only requires one shot.

The CDC recently announced fully vaccinated individuals can resume activities that they did before the pandemic without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, including local business and workplace guidance.  

“While J&J’s vaccine has 66.3% effectiveness overall and 74.4% effectiveness in the United States, it has “100% efficacy against hospitalization and death from the virus,” says AMA Chief Health and Science Officer, Mira Irons, MD.

Research is still emerging, but Johns Hopkins Hospital reports that it can take up to two weeks for your body to reach peak immunity. 

Even if you’ve been vaccinated, we still don’t know how or if the vaccine affects your ability to spread the virus to others. So it’s important to be responsible and continue to take precautions – if not for yourself, for others who are still at risk of contracting the virus. 

Ultimately, there’s no way to completely decrease the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. To reduce risk of exposure, it’s important to remain vigilant and take responsibility to protect yourself and others.  

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