Wellness Wednesday: Public safety as big shows come back

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Jennifer Lopez smiling on stage.
Jennifer Lopez performs at Global Citizen VAX LIVE: The Concert To Reunite The World at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, May 2, 2021. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Global Citizen VAX LIVE)
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Public safety as big shows come back
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We're starting to see rescheduled tours. We're starting to see a lot of concert announcements, the gradual kind of opening of live events. As we start this slow return to life as we knew it, it's a good time to talk about staying safe at concerts and in crowds.

I have a return guest to Wellness Wednesday. Dr. Beth Thielen is a faculty member in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Immunology at the University of Minnesota Medical School and an infectious disease physician with M Health Fairview.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on Spotify, Apple, RSS, Radio Public, Stitcher, or Amazon Music.

Jill Riley: The last time we talked, it was before Halloween, and we were talking about how to stay safe and do safe trick-or-treating and all those traditional Halloween activities. So I'm really glad to have you back. If you're fully vaccinated, is it safe to start attending these in-person events, whether they be outdoor or indoor?

Beth Thielen: I think it's a really important question. And I think the good news is that the CDC has recently released some guidance on this, which is kind of a pictograph to help people kind of think through their risks. It's really important to consider: it looks different if you're fully vaccinated versus if you're not vaccinated. So I think the first thing to pay attention to is: being vaccinated makes a big difference in terms of what we think your safety is to attend these events.

And then the second point, harkening back to what we talked about in October: we still are thinking about what the risk is of the events that we're doing and using different recommendations depending on what the risk is. So the advice hasn't changed that outdoor events are still safer than indoor events, and I think the CDC guidance really reflects that. So there's still more discussion of masking plus vaccination in order to really increase the safety of those indoor events where people are clustered together.

Likewise, outdoor events in a small, you know, backyard, barbecue sort of situation is still safer than an outdoor concert where we knew from earlier in the pandemic, even though outdoor events are generally safer, we did see some transmissions happening in crowded outdoor concerts. And so the guidance really reflects that. For those small family gatherings or a few friends, the CDC has has said now that if you're vaccinated, everybody's vaccinated, it's fine to go without masks — whereas they do still recommend masking, even for vaccinated individuals in these more crowded events like concerts.

You can think about it like the way we think about seatbelts. A seatbelt provides a lot of protection if you're in a car crash. But a seatbelt is a much more effective at protecting you, if you're you're in a city street and you're going 30 miles an hour, versus if you're going 100 miles an hour down a freeway. The risk is higher in the second category. Even the seatbelt, though it's protective, may not fully protect you. And that's where the recommendations come in to say, you should still be wearing a mask if you're in these more crowded environments, even if you are vaccinated.

You mentioned masking, and I think that's been a big question with folks who have been vaccinated: fully vaccinated, two weeks out from that second dose. That question is, do I still have to wear the mask? And it sounds like the guidance so far is yeah, that's the safest way to be right now.

Yeah, and I think there's situations where we've got the guidance now that it's okay not to mask. So if you're in a small group and everybody has been vaccinated indoors, that is one of the more safe environments to be in. But many of these larger, riskier, gatherings are still masking. And I think some of that concern comes from what we're seeing globally.

Many of your listeners will be have heard about the situation going on in India, which is really quite concerning the level of cases that they're having and how many variants they're having. We are starting to see some of those same variants that are emerging in India coming up in the United States, which is totally expected given the amount of travel that we have. And so I think that raises concerns. Our population is still under 50% vaccinated; there's still a lot of vulnerable people out there, and the potential for these variants to take off particularly in little pockets of lower immunization rates.

We want people to feel hopeful and optimistic, and I don't want to squash anyone's excitement about these events, because I think it's been a long slog over a year of being isolated, and I think this is a much needed emotional, social benefit to people. But I just want to make sure people are still being cautious and keeping in mind, we're not entirely through it yet. There's still some curveballs that might turn up for people.

So, the curveballs being the variants. Is that top of mind when it comes to the large events?

Absolutely. We've seen now in Minnesota the B117 variant. That was the one of the earlier ones that was first described coming out of the United Kingdom. So that has really become the dominant strain here in Minnesota. Probably two thirds or so of our cases are now that variant, and we know from the literature and other places [it] tends to spread at a higher rate, and potentially cause more disease in younger folks. So I'm in both an adult and pediatric infectious disease physician at the University of Minnesota, and I can tell you that we are seeing it clinically, here and around the state, we are seeing more cases of severe disease in in young adults.

One misconception that I hear quite frequently is that oh, I am, you know, in my 20s or 30s and so I'm not at risk for severe disease. I think it's really important we get that information out to people that we are starting to see more significant disease in young adults and even teenagers. So I think still being mindful of these proven infection prevention measures like masking, we still want to employ those. And I would also add that, you know, we haven't yet rolled out vaccines to children and young adults in a large way. But we're expecting in the coming weeks that we'll have vaccines potentially down to age 12, and then even potentially even younger, but we still are needing to think about how to protect our children [and] young adults, both from becoming infected and from spreading the infection to susceptible contacts.

As someone who works at a music station, the concert thing has really been top of mind — whether it be a limited capacity indoor show at a club or outdoor shows returning this summer, but I think one that everybody could relate to here in Minnesota [is] the thought of the Minnesota State Fair, because that's still on the table.

We got some encouraging news about that in the past week. As a born and raised Minnesotan, there's nothing I can think of [that's] more quintessentially Minnesotan than the State Fair. I'm so excited to hear this news, and I hope that we can continue to roll out the public health measures like vaccines and keep these variants under control so that we all can enjoy the State Fair safely this summer. I think it would be really wonderful.

Vaccine on a stick!


Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley, and produced by Anna Weggel and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License.


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