Minnesotans are known for their large gatherings – -including the “Great Minnesota Get-
Together.” This summer, the Minnesota State Fair as well as concerts and other crowd-
oriented festivities return, thanks to increasing COVID-19 vaccination rates. But, is it actually safe yet?
Beth Thielen, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School and an adult and pediatric infectious diseases physician with M Health Fairview, discusses how to safely attend large gatherings and events this summer.
Q: Are large gatherings safe for the fully vaccinated now? And does it matter if they are held indoors or outdoors?
Dr. Thielen: Based on the scientific evidence we have to date, it is now recommended that fully vaccinated people can resume both indoor and outdoor activities without a mask, unless required by local laws, healthcare facilities, or businesses.
However, it still may be reasonable for vaccinated individuals to continue to take precautions, such as physical distancing and wearing a face covering, if they are at higher risk for the virus based on their individual circumstances. For example, people may still choose to take health precautions if they are immunocompromised or have young children in their household who are unable to be vaccinated. It is also important to remember that these recommendations may change as circumstances evolve. For example, if we begin to see variant viruses that are able to evade the immune response induced by the vaccine, these guidelines would change to reduce the variant’s spread.
Q: What are your recommendations for people attending large gatherings?
Dr. Thielen: Carefully weigh the risks and benefits of attending, particularly if you are not vaccinated.
• Outdoor events are safer than indoor events.
• Encourage event planners to promote COVID-19 vaccination among attendees. The risk of infection is lower if most attendees are vaccinated.
• If you are unable to be vaccinated or may be less able to respond to the vaccine, wear a mask and maintain physical distancing at the event.
• Know whether SARS-CoV-2 is circulating in your community. The Minnesota Department of Health reports the number of cases by county. Minnesota also reports how much of the population is vaccinated by county.
• Keep in mind that other infections that spread person-to-
person are starting to appear again as we begin to resume normal activities. These include infections like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which causes colds in healthy adults but can cause more severe respiratory disease in young children and elderly adults, and norovirus, a common food-borne infection that causes vomiting and diarrhea.
• Practice good hand hygiene by washing with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand sanitizers that protect against SARS-CoV-2 as well as many of the other infectious diseases that spread person-to-person.
• Be alert for symptoms of disease, and get tested if you develop symptoms.
Q: Is it safe to take my unvaccinated children to large events this summer (e.g. the Minnesota State Fair)? How can I protect them?
Dr. Thielen: For many Minnesotans, the State Fair is one of the quintessential Minnesota activities, and many of us are excited for its return this year. Here are some suggestions for keeping children safe at the State Fair and other summer events:
• Consider vaccination for -children if possible. As of June 2021, the Pfizer vaccine is available to children 12 years of age and older, but stay tuned over the summer for broader access for younger children.
• Wear a face covering and maintain distance from other people if you are not vaccinated.
• Focus on outdoor fair activities, which are safer than indoor activities.
• Consider attending on less busy times of the day or days of the week.
• Consider local disease activity using the resources listed above. A lot can change over the next two months, so it is important to check back on how the situation is changing as we get closer to the event.
Q: Are there certain events you would avoid at this time?
Dr. Thielen: While much of the United States is seeing some of the lowest number of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, it is important to remember that it is still actively circulating in many parts of the world, and new, more infectious variants have emerged in the past months. I would avoid traveling to other countries with high levels of disease, particularly areas where variants of concern are circulating. We are still learning how well vaccines protect against these emerging variants.
Q: What are you doing to further our understanding of the impact of COVID-19?
Dr. Thielen: With colleagues in the Departments of Surgery and Obstetrics, Gynecology, and
Women’s Health at the U of M Medical School, we are studying how COVID-associated social distancing affects the infants’ microbiota. The microbiota are the collection of all the microbiomes (such as bacteria, viruses, fungi aka “germs”) that are inside and on the body. Newborns come into the world with very limited microbiota and acquire more over time from their mothers and the people and environment around them. The distancing of the past 15 months has dramatically changed the environment for babies, and we want to find out how this affects their developing immune systems and long-term health. You can learn more about the study and how to participate at thielen.umn.edu.
My lab also studies other respiratory virus infections, like influenza and RSV, and hope to have more studies of how these viruses cause disease in children later this year.
Another important area of research is whether or not the protection from COVID-19 vaccines lasts over time, particularly for people who are immunocompromised, meaning their immune system is impaired by illnesses such as cancer, HIV, or an organ or bone marrow transplant. Colleagues at the U of M are also studying these questions, and you can learn more about the study at seronet.umn.edu.
Beth Thielen, M.D., Ph.D., is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the U of M Medical School, and an adult and pediatric infectious diseases physician with M Health Fairview. Her research is focused on the molecular epidemiology and viral pathogenesis of human respiratory viral infections. Her clinical interests include clinical immunology, immunocompromised patients, and