UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State is requiring all individuals to wear masks inside the University’s buildings regardless of their vaccination status, a policy that aligns with the CDC’s latest recommendations for masking in areas with high or substantial COVID-19 transmission. Yet some people are wondering, “Why do I have to mask up if I’m vaccinated?”
“We have all had our fill of wearing masks,” said Moriah Szpara, associate professor of biology and biochemistry and molecular biology, “but this small effort is well worth the huge benefits it provides in blocking the spread of COVID-19, and helping to protect those who remain vulnerable, like young children and immunocompromised individuals.”
For the unvaccinated, Szpara adds, mask wearing is an obvious transmission prevention strategy, but it’s also extremely important for vaccinated people to mask up. That’s because of the potential for breakthrough infections to occur, in which people who are fully vaccinated test positive for COVID-19.
Szpara notes that recent studies suggest that breakthrough infections in vaccinated people may account for up to one in five newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases. “And if vaccinated people can acquire breakthrough infections, it means they are capable of transmitting the virus to others,” she said. In fact, some studies suggest that vaccinated people can carry the same viral load as unvaccinated people.
“This is particularly important given that the Delta variant, which is now the predominant SARS-CoV-2 strain in the United States, causes more severe illness than the initial variant,” she said.
With the chance of a breakthrough infection, why should I bother getting the vaccine?
“Even though vaccinated people can acquire breakthrough infections, all three available vaccines remain highly effective at reducing the chances of severe disease, hospitalization and death due to COVID-19,” said Szpara, noting that the vaccines are demonstrably safe, having been safely tolerated by hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. “And in the event that a breakthrough infection does occur, vaccinated people are likely to experience milder symptoms and have a shorter time to recovery — both of which are a good thing.”
She adds that previously having had COVID-19 isn’t a guarantee that you won’t become reinfected, because natural immunity may not be sufficient protection against the new Delta variant. “Research shows that unvaccinated adults who were previously infected with COVID-19 were twice as likely to be reinfected as vaccinated adults who were previously infected,” she said.
In addition, vaccinated people are much less likely to transmit the virus than unvaccinated people because they are infectious for a shorter period of time.
On the right track
According to Penn State’s recent COVID-19 vaccination survey, among both undergraduate and graduate student respondents, 88% of University Park respondents, 73% of Commonwealth Campus respondents, and 84% of World Campus respondents report being partially or fully vaccinated.
“These numbers are very encouraging,” said Szpara. “But I think we can do even better. If you’ve been waiting to get your vaccine, please don’t wait any longer. Widespread vaccine uptake is our only hope for getting out of this pandemic and beating the virus variants. In the meantime, mask wearing is essential to stop the spread of COVID-19, regardless of vaccine status. None of us wants to do this forever. Getting everyone vaccinated will help get us past this pandemic and help get things back to normal.”
Where can I get a vaccine?
University Health Services, a unit of Penn State Student Affairs, is administering free COVID-19 vaccinations for all students in the Student Health Center at University Park, beginning with the first day of fall classes on Aug. 23.
First and second doses of the Moderna vaccine are readily available for Penn State students starting on Monday, Aug. 23, and Tuesday Aug. 24, as well as every Thursday and Friday beginning Sept. 2-3. Appointments are available from 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the Student Health Center. Students can schedule an appointment via myUHS.
Penn State students also are eligible to receive a free COVID-19 vaccine at various locations in State College. Centre Volunteers in Medicine is providing free COVID-19 vaccinations for individuals ages 12 and older. First or second doses for all vaccines will be available for walk-in appointments from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Aug. 30 at 2520 Green Tech Drive, Suite D, which is accessible via CATA's W (Valley Vista) bus route. CVS Pharmacy also is administering free Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for walk-in and scheduled appointments. Likewise, Rite Aid is administering walk-in and scheduled appointments for the Moderna vaccine and, at some locations, the Pfizer vaccine.
You can also enter your ZIP code on the CDC website, Vaccines.gov, to find nearby vaccine providers, which include hospitals, urgent care centers, doctors’ offices and pharmacies.
Penn State students, faculty and staff should upload their vaccination records as soon as possible. With this information, University officials will be able to better assess vaccination rates across Penn State and plan for the fall activities that we all love. The latest vaccination information is available on Penn State’s virus information website.