After a pause on large gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many are apprehensive about whether it’s safe to return to concerts, the Minnesota State Fair and other crowd-oriented events this summer. 

“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,” said Beth Thielen, MD, MPH, an adult and pediatric infectious disease physician at University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians). “It still may be reasonable for vaccinated individuals 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.”

This means that individuals who are immunocompromised or have young children in their household who are unable to be vaccinated may still consider taking additional precautions. Currently, the Pfizer vaccine is available to children 12 years of age and older, but access may expand in the coming months. For parents with children who do not yet qualify, Dr. Thielen recommends wearing a face covering, social distancing and attending outdoor events if possible. 

“It’s also important to remember that these recommendations may change as circumstances evolve,” Dr. Thielen said. “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.”

Dr. Thielen recommends considering the risks and benefits of attending large gatherings, especially if you’re not vaccinated. Some important factors to consider:

  • 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 foodborne 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.

While much of the United States has seen decreasing COVID-19 cases, the virus is still actively circulating in some parts of the world. 

“I would avoid traveling to other countries with high levels of disease, particularly areas where variants of concern are circulating,” Dr. Thielen said. “We are still learning how well vaccines protect against these emerging variants.”

As an adult and pediatric infectious disease physician, Dr. Thielen and her colleagues are studying how COVID-associated social distancing affects the infants’ microbiota, which is the collection of microbiomes (bacteria, viruses, fungi) 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,” Dr. Thielen said. “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.”

The COVID Newborn Microbiome Study is actively recruiting participants. Dr. Thielen’s lab also studies other respiratory virus infections, like influenza and RSV, and hopes to have more studies around 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,” Dr. Thielen said. 

Colleagues at the U of M are also studying these questions through the SeroNet COVID-19 Vaccine Response Study, which is also actively recruiting participants.