Dr. Kim Shriner ’80, medical director of infection prevention and control at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, is Oxy’s special adviser on COVID-19 issues.
In the first of what will be a regular feature for the Oxy community, we sat down with Dr. Shriner to address some recent questions about COVID asked by community members.
This summer’s surge in Delta variant cases worries me and many others. How safe will it be to return to in-person activities on campus?
If I were a professor or a student or a staff member at Oxy, I would feel entirely comfortable being in a well-ventilated classroom or office with other vaccinated people. Vaccination is the most powerful tool we have for protecting students, faculty, staff, their families, and the surrounding community. The next most important tool is masking, which is also highly effective in reducing and sometimes even blocking infection, particularly when both individuals are masked. With its vaccination and masking mandates, its testing program, the work it has done on building HVAC systems, and with the other protocols it has adopted, Oxy has gone to great lengths to protect the campus community.
Realistically, we have to expect to see some cases on campus this fall. Safety is never perfect. Life is risky. When you get into your car, you’re taking a risk. The actions that Oxy has taken and will continue to take decrease that risk considerably.
My children are not yet eligible for vaccination. What is the risk that I could unknowingly bring the virus home with me from campus and infect them? Are there special precautions or restrictions I should follow on- or off-campus to minimize this risk?
I certainly hope the FDA approves the vaccines for children under 12 as soon as possible. But the risk of a fully vaccinated and healthy person bringing a COVID infection home from a place like Oxy is very small. Vaccinated people are eight times less likely than unvaccinated people to carry the virus. The best way, of course, to protect children is to get vaccinated yourself. Another important step is to encourage kids to wear masks—they’re really pretty good at wearing masks. Studies have shown that if elementary schools have strong masking policies that the teachers don’t get the virus and students don’t spread it among themselves.
Going to Disneyland and other places with lots of people whose status you don’t know is not a good idea. If you remain masked around people you don’t know—and it’s good for people to remain masked whenever you can—the likelihood of bringing COVID home is small.
I’m vaccinated, but I’m concerned about the possibility of getting infected anyway and becoming a “breakthrough case.” How likely is that? How severe are breakthrough cases?
I don’t like the term “breakthrough case” because it implies that the vaccine has failed--and they haven’t failed. They weren’t designed to prevent infection. That’s an extra perk. They were designed to prevent serious illness, keep people out of hospital and keep them from dying. They have been remarkably effective in doing so, far more so than most other vaccines. Cases where a vaccinated person becomes infected are very rare. Nationally, there have been around 10,000 cases out of the 167 million people who have been vaccinated. In those rare cases where a vaccinated person does get infected, usually their symptoms are like those of the common cold. In vaccinated persons, the risk of a serious lower respiratory infection of the lungs is extremely small. Nationwide, the rate is less than 1 percent and the death rate is even lower. Bottom line, it’s very very uncommon for vaccinated people to get hospitalized or die from COVID.
I’ve seen estimates that we’ll achieve herd immunity when anywhere from 70 to 85% of the population is fully vaccinated. With Oxy’s vaccination rate at 97%, will we have some kind of community immunity?
Herd immunity is achievable in micro-environments, but Oxy does not exist in a bubble. It’s a porous campus. The much greater infectiousness rate for the Delta variant is one of the reasons why masking remains so important.
How would you assess the most significant pandemic risks the Oxy community will face this fall?
I think the most significant risk is non-compliance with masking mandates. If you’re off campus drinking at a bar, for example, where people are less likely to wear masks, you’ve got a greater chance of being exposed and bringing the virus back to campus. Unmasked and prolonged exposures with other unmasked and perhaps unvaccinated persons no matter the venue are the highest risk events.