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, MD, PhD, 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 resume wearing masks for indoor activities given the increased transmissibility we have seen as the Delta variant has become predominant across the country. Minnesota is solidly in the midst of a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases with high case numbers across the state and rising hospitalizations among younger unvaccinated people. For this reason, I also recommend wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings and for activities with close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated.
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. I have been fully vaccinated since January and I’m choosing to sit out the State Fair this year due to the risk for myself and vulnerable people around me.
- Get vaccinated. The COVID vaccines have been extensively studied across the world and have been proven to be safe and effective. This is the single best way to protect yourself from severe disease, hospitalization and death from SARS-CoV-2.
- 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, you should definitely wear a mask and maintain physical distancing at the event.
- Outdoor events are safer than indoor events.
- 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.
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 and fall for broader access for younger children. The U of M is participating in studies to learn more about COVID vaccines in children.
- The Minnesota Department of Health is offering opportunities to get vaccinated if you haven’t already gotten your shot.
- 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: Across the United States, COVID-19 cases are at some of the highest levels at any time during the pandemic. I recommend focusing more on smaller, outdoor gatherings with friends and family, which are much safer than crowded indoor and even outdoor events.
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 here.
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 here.
Beth Thielen, MD, PhD, 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 travel medicine.
This release was updated August 2021 to accommodate an uptick in COVID-19 cases.
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