As a doctor during a global pandemic, professionally, Chris T. Pernell, MD, MPH, knows the the devastating effects of COVID-19 on those who contract it and their families. She also knows the effects personally. The public health and health equity expert with the American College of Preventive Medicine lost her father to COVID-19 last year, as well as two cousins. In addition to that, her sister is what they call a “long-hauler,” someone who survived the virus but still grapples with lingering symptoms. With them in mind, she advocates as much as possible for people to get vaccinated, saying it’s the best way forward and hopefully out of this pandemic.
“With the personal losses I have endured — my father and two cousins — and the staggering loss of life and disability we have experienced as a nation and world, with three vaccines currently available, every case and death is now preventable,” she tells ESSENCE.
More than 177 million people are fully vaccinated in the U.S., and many are returning to the activities and communities flocked to pre-Covid. For those who have been vaccinated, it may feel as if you’ve been given the green light to throw yourself back into packed crowds and wear masks sparingly, but that’s not necessarily true, especially if you spend time around or live with vulnerable people (like the unvaccinated). With the Delta variant running rampant, precautions are still necessary. So we spoke with Dr. Pernell to understand more about the importance of the vaccine, as well as what the best actions are to take once you’ve officially vaccinated. How should you behave as you return to indoor and outdoor events teeming with people, from concerts and fitness classes to festivals and restaurants? Dr. Pernell explains.
ESSENCE: It feels like things are somewhat getting back to normal in regards to activities. But as the news tells us, the Delta variant is not slowing down and in some states, infection and death rates are higher than ever. What is it that people have mistaken or are doing that is keeping us from really making the progress we need to?
Dr. Chris T. Pernell: First and foremost, the most effective way for us to make real progress against COVID-19 is for all those who are eligible to get vaccinated. Vaccines have been one of the most important medical advances and have shown time and again the ability to control and even eradicate diseases. As misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines has circulated the country, I would encourage those with questions and lingering concerns to speak with their doctors and other trusted medical voices. The science behind vaccines is sound, and it’s important for medical professionals to promote this. I believe so much in the safety of vaccines, that over a year ago, after losing my beloved father, Timothy L. Pernell Sr., to COVID-19, I decided to volunteer for the Moderna coronavirus vaccine trial, and there hasn’t been a day where I have regretted that decision. Seeing how this crisis has ravaged my own family and the earthquakes of devastation it has caused around the globe, specifically in Black and Brown U.S. communities, I know firsthand that we must pursue with urgency our most effective way out of this pandemic. Recently, I have been involved with the American College of Preventive Medicine’s (ACPM) Vaccine Confident campaign, which has opened a dialogue among preventive medicine specialists and doctors to encourage them to move the needle on instilling public confidence, which, if it leads to encouraging those who are hesitant to get the vaccine, will be a program that can really help us move forward.
It is also very important to emphasize that safety and prevention are best achieved when we follow a multi-layered approach. That’s why I strongly encourage the use of mask wearing, especially when indoors regardless of vaccination status, and particularly in areas of high or substantial community spread. Well-ventilated indoor spaces, hand washing, convenient access to testing, and masks are additional tools that can help us, and they are reliable solutions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, especially with the onset of the Delta variant.
We’re entering into a time when people are returning to spaces filled with crowds, indoors and outdoors and thinking it’s fine as long as people are tested and vaccinated. With that in mind, what is the best way to operate when going to an outdoor concert or festival for example? Are we still safe because we’re in the fresh air?
Spending time outside is a much safer choice as you are less likely to be exposed, even without the use of masks. While it is safer, if you’re in a situation where you are closer than six feet to multiple people who don’t live with you, like a concert or festival, wearing a mask and frequent hand washing are the best way to keep yourself, and others, protected.
What about when in indoor spaces like stadium concerts and, a smaller example, in group fitness classes? Those are spaces where people may be singing and breathing hard.
If you’re planning on being indoors in a crowded space, it’s a good idea to be masked up, even if your city/state doesn’t require you to do so. Since the Delta variant has shown to have a higher transmission rate, wearing a mask can help protect you, even if you are vaccinated, and can definitely protect those around you who have not yet been fully vaccinated, and are therefore more susceptible to contracting the virus. And remember, your mask provides the best protection when it’s worn over your nose and mouth and fits properly.
What precautions do we need to take when doing dining in public? As the weather changes, it’s likely that the outdoor options will lose their appeal and more people will seek to do indoor dining.
While each person’s comfort level with risk differs, I approach these scenarios by asking myself the question: is it a necessary risk and are there others in my social or familial circle who are at increased risk of severe disease or hospitalization if they were to contract the virus? With that being said, something to keep in mind is that, in terms of indoor dining, you will always be at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19 where seating capacity is not reduced and tables aren’t spaced six feet apart. Especially with the Delta variant, which has been shown to have higher rates of transmission, being maskless in a restaurant while eating does pose the probability of exposure and infection. That said, those who are vaccinated, while still susceptible to becoming infected, have a much lower rate of getting very sick. Outside of being masked and practicing physical distancing and proper hand washing, the most effective way to keep yourself and others as safe as possible is to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Is there any other info or a message you want to get out there as people get more comfortable, perhaps too comfortable seeking out entertainment and fun again?
The most important message I can share as a public health and preventive medicine specialist is simple – if you’re eligible, get the COVID-19 vaccine. It is through collective action that we can beat back the pandemic, and as a a physician whose work centers on health equity and racial justice, together, we can amplify how best to transform our society, protect everyone and heal from past and contemporary injustices. And speaking of prevention, not only should we focus on COVID-19 vaccinations, but also we must stay up to date with routine vaccinations. We cannot afford to suffer additional setbacks and outbreaks. Especially when vaccines are safe, effective, and extensively researched and tested. Smallpox, once one of the deadliest diseases in the world, has been eradicated at home and abroad thanks entirely to vaccines. Polio, which ravaged the globe during the early 20th century, has been controlled and cases have declined by more than 99.9% worldwide. The U.S. has been polio-free since 1979. The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on everyone, and with these vaccines, we are offered hope to a more normal existence. It is entirely up to us as a society to be able to get out of this. If you’re still hesitant, I would encourage people to speak with their doctors. And if you aren’t comfortable with that, please go to vaccineconfident.org to ask any questions you may have. Our trusted members of the ACPM are on standby, prepared to answer any questions you may have.