Alaska News

Alaska coronavirus Q&A: Can fully vaccinated people socialize unmasked? Does the virus spread more easily in freezing temperatures?

We’re continuing to hear from readers who have lots of questions about the new COVID-19 vaccines, and the ever-changing science of the still-novel coronavirus. This week, we asked state health officials what they think about fully vaccinated people spending time together unmasked. We also looked into the science behind cold-weather transmission and the varying levels of immunity post-infection.

We checked whether the vaccine works just as well on older adults, and asked whether the state has any updated plans to move onto the next eligible group of people for vaccinations. Right now, only front-line health care workers, residents and staff of long-term care facilities, and those 65 and older are eligible to sign up.

If that’s you, a reminder that you can visit to make an appointment, or call the state’s COVID-19 vaccine hotline at 1-907-646-3322 between 9 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends. Previously, that number went right to voicemail and you had to wait for a call-back to get help. Now, you’ll be able to talk to a real person.

We’ll keep looking for answers. If you have a question of your own, feel free to drop it in the form at the bottom of this page.

Can people who have received both vaccine doses socialize unmasked with other fully vaccinated people?

Public health officials in Alaska and nationwide are still recommending that even fully vaccinated people err on side of caution and continue to keep up with virus mitigation efforts: social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands often, and avoiding crowds.

That’s partially because although both vaccines are about 95% effective, that still means that one in 20 people who get vaccinated are susceptible to COVID-19 infection.

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And while both Moderna and Pfizer have developed highly effective vaccines that have been shown in numerous clinical trials to prevent serious illness, the jury is still out on whether they can fully protect against mild and asymptomatic infections and spread. Not enough of the population has been vaccinated yet to justify any possible transmission, even in these low-risk settings, they say.

“I’m sure things will change over time, but for now, no matter who you’re around — outside of your household or tight little social bubble — you need to continue to do a really good job of following those mitigation strategies, even if you’re fully vaccinated,” said Joe McLaughlin, an epidemiologist with the state health department, on a call this week.

Have there been any studies that looked at virus transmission outdoors in below-freezing temperatures? How well do virus particles travel in such cold temperatures?

Viruses do in fact thrive in colder temperatures, said Jayme Parker, chief of the Alaska Public Health labs. This partially explains why influenza, colds and now the novel coronavirus have spiked in winter, she said.

“Viruses are more stable in cold and dry climates,” she said. “When the humidity drops below 40%, viral stability does improve.”

That’s another reason to wear a mask when socializing outdoors during the winter, health experts say. Plus, masks keep your face warm.

Does the body create more or less of an immune response depending on the severity of the infection?

For the most part, yes. People with more severe infections — especially those who require ICU care — tend to have higher antibody levels post-infection than those with milder infections, McLaughlin said

“That likely translates to people who have more severe infections probably having a longer duration of immunity,” he said.

However, exact length of duration probably depends on the person, and there isn’t enough data to say definitively yet how long that duration is.

Health officials such as the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink still recommend getting a vaccine even if someone has already had a COVID infection of any severity. She says that the vaccine may provide a more “robust” immune response than getting the illness itself.

Immunity to COVID-19 can wane, Zink said. So, even if someone did test positive for COVID-19, a vaccine is still important. They just ask that people who are actively sick to wait to get the vaccine.

Is the vaccine equally effective in older adults?

The latest data on the two currently available mRNA coronavirus vaccines show that they work just as well on people 55 and older as they do on younger people; meaning, in the 95% effective range.

This is different than other vaccines like the influenza vaccine, which, if you’re older, you typically need a higher dose in order to develop the same strong immune response.

When will the next group of Alaskans after seniors be able to get vaccinated?

That depends on how much vaccine is made and distributed, and whether additional vaccines get approved, said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer. It also depends on how many seniors opt in to receiving the vaccine.

“All of those things play a role in when we can move onto the next tier,” she said. “So what we’re going to do is everything we can to get every senior vaccinated right now. And then we have spots available, we’ll move on.”

She and others have estimated it will take at least until the end of February to move on to the next tier, but that could change if there’s a chance that any vaccine could go unused, and health officially are continuing to weigh these decisions in real time.