Vaccinated students expected to follow all COVID-19 guidelines for foreseeable future

Tufts Medical Center is pictured on Aug. 28, 2014. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily Archives

Vaccinated students located on the Medford/Somerville campus will be expected to follow all university COVID-19 guidelines for the time being, according to University Infection Control Health Director Michael Jordan.

University health officials have suggested that although vaccines are capable of preventing serious complications from COVID-19, it is still unclear to what extent vaccinated individuals may still become infected and spread the virus.

“The two vaccines that are available have been shown to prevent serious Covid-19 disease,” Tufts’ COVID-19 website reads. “However, the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility.”

The website states that as researchers study the possibility of vaccinated individuals being able to transmit COVID-19, those who have received a vaccine should carry themselves under the assumption that they may still be potential spreaders.

Research is currently being conducted into whether vaccinated individuals can spread COVID-19. An Israeli study reported on Feb. 21 that the Pfizer-BioNTech SE vaccine may be 89% effective at preventing laboratory-confirmed infections, according to Bloomberg, although some scientists have disputed the findings

Jordan wrote in an email to the Daily that while the results of the early study show promise, more data will need to be collected in order for the university to lift any COVID-19 restrictions for vaccinated individuals. 

Specifically, he suggested that long-term follow-ups to the Israeli study still need to be done, as well as analyses into whether or not the vaccine can stop the transmission of new virus variants. The CDC has predicted that the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the United Kingdom, will be the dominant variant in the United States by March.

“At this time we have no plans to change our policies,” Jordan wrote in an email to the Daily. “Regardless of vaccination status, people will still need to follow covid-19 surveillance testing protocols, isolation/quarantine guidance, wear masks, remain at a physical distance, etc.”

Jordan explained that Tufts may consider relaxing some restrictions in the future once there is enough data to prove that it is safe.

“Once high levels of herd immunity are achieved in the country and data support long term immunity and immunity against new variants, we may start to think about relaxing some restrictions,” Jordan said. “However, this is many months off and we should not expect changes this semester.” 

Shira Doron, hospital epidemiologist and antimicrobial steward and attending physician at Tufts Medical Center, believes that recent studies indicate that vaccination may prevent most asymptomatic and symptomatic infections, and therefore most incidents of COVID-19 transmission. Doron, who is also an associate professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine, cited results presented by the Israeli study as well as a preliminary study published by the Mayo Clinic on Feb. 24.

“[Vaccination is] probably over 80% effective at preventing even asymptomatic infection, and therefore, transmission,” Doron said. “Those who do get asymptomatic infection are going to have lower viral loads, making them less likely to transmit.”

However, she also indicated that it may be a long time before it is safe for restrictions to be lifted across the state. On top of the lengthy distribution of vaccinations to the general public, Doron pointed out that certain populations — including those with weakened immune systems and children under 12may not respond properly to the vaccine or even be able to get the vaccine for a long time, if ever.

“We’re going to have to be cautious for a long time … Picture the Tufts campus; you’re never going to know who’s vaccinated and who’s not, so you’re still going to have to mask and distance for a while,” Doron said. 

Some students on the Medford/Somerville campus have started to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations through parties outside of the university over the past few months. In a statement emailed to the Tufts community on Feb. 18, Jordan explained that Massachusetts had moved into Phase 2, Group 2 of its vaccine rollout plan, allowing those 65 years and older as well as individuals with two or more qualifying medical conditions to receive the vaccine. 

However, Jordan also clarified in the email that Massachusetts has not provided the university with vaccines to host an on-campus clinic. He encouraged eligible community members to obtain the vaccination through providers independent of the university.

The university is anticipating that most of the Tufts community will be eligible to receive the vaccine in April in line with Phase 3 of the Commonwealth’s plan.

“The vast majority of students, faculty and staff have not yet been vaccinated,” Jordan said. “Currently, the state’s plan calls for the general public to receive the vaccine in phase 3, which the state projects to begin sometime in mid-April … Tufts will follow the state’s phases and, as a result, the majority of our student community would be eligible to receive the vaccine in phase 3.”

Kaman Hau, who was able to receive both doses of the Pfizer vaccine this month as a remote staff worker at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said that she feels blessed to have received a vaccine. She added that she will continue to follow all COVID-19 guidelines.

“I feel like emotionally, it has really helped me in terms of mental health knowing that the vaccine will give me some sort of protection … I definitely am still going to social distance, wear a mask, not see anyone without a mask and just protect other people and myself,” Hau, a junior, said. “We don’t know, if you get COVID, if it’s transmissible even if you have a vaccine already.” 

Jordan said that students who get vaccinated will be able to upload documentation through the Tufts health portal, in the same manner that they upload proof of routine immunizations. 

Massachusetts has administered 1,566,301 total vaccines in either first or second doses as of Thursday. Massachusetts was ranked sixth in the country for first doses administered per capita as of Feb. 18, according to Doron. Among the 24 states with a population of five million or more, as of Feb. 21, Massachusetts ranked first in first doses administered per capita.

While she cannot predict how the Commonwealth will ease restrictions as more of the state’s population is vaccinated, Doron imagines that many restrictions may be lifted as hospitals begin to see fewer infections.

“[Hospitals are] starting to become less overwhelmed, but we’re still … operating at greater than 100% of our capacity,” Doron said. “As we improve on that, I think Governor Baker will ease some of the restrictions in terms of occupancy levels and gathering restrictions.”

Doron predicted that the wearing of masks will be present for the foreseeable future.

“I don’t see masks going away for a really long time,” Doron said. “A really long time.”