A conversation about COVID-19 and the holidays with Dr. Joshua Sharfstein

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Dr. Joshua Sharfstein plans to spend a normal Thanksgiving with his family.

That was not the case one year ago for him and countless other Americans, as cases of COVID-19 soared before a vaccine became available.

Still, the vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has a warning for other families. “I don’t recommend that older adults go to an indoor Thanksgiving dinner with adults who are not vaccinated. Obviously there are kids who can’t get vaccinated, so I would recommend that older adults keep some distance from them,” he said in an interview this week. “If everyone should be vaccinated at Thanksgiving dinner, that will create a lot of protection.”

Sharfstein, a former deputy FDA commissioner and former secretary of the Maryland Department of Health, also supports continuing the mask mandate in public schools.

“Now that they just started to vaccinate kids in school, I think it’s probably too early to get rid of the mandate. It’s also important to consider there’s still a fair amount of virus out there,” he said. “Once more kids are vaccinated, and cases decline, I think it’s quite possible that school systems can reduce restrictions and eliminate the mask mandate.”

The Maryland State Board of Education is expected to re-evaluate a universal masking order next month.

With millions of Americans planning to fly over the Thanksgiving weekend, Sharfstein urges caution.

“I’m vaccinated, but I don’t know the people around me on an airplane. It’s best to wear a high-quality mask on the plane and only remove it to eat,” he said. “I’ve taken a few flights recently, and I try my best not to eat in the air. Of course, it’s important to remain hydrated and you have to eat something if it’s a long flight.”

As 2022 approaches, Sharfstein sees encouraging trends which could help contain the stubborn and deadly virus. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to vote early next year whether to authorize a vaccine for children under age 5. And Sharfstein says the FDA is also expected to approve new medicine to treat COVID-19. Pfizer and Merck have developed anti-viral pills to be taken as soon as someone tests positive for the virus.

Sharftstein remains troubled by the amount of misinformation about the vaccines which he believes has caused a spike in cases in many states. He is urging everyone to get vaccinated and receive a booster shot if eligible. “If you’ve gotten those first shots, there’s still a lot of protection against getting sick, hospitalizations and death. But the booster is really the icing on the cake,” he said.

Sharfstein says it does not appear that people will need to get vaccinated every six months. But he adds: “If there is a new variation of the virus that turns out to escape the vaccine, then we’re going to need another shot, but that won’t be the same one you have already received.”

He believes COVID could stick around for years from now, but it will eventually become a risk that society chooses to accept.

“It’ll also be a risk that we take precautions for. For example, if the transmission rates are high, whether it’s for COVID or flu, I think many people will wear masks,” Sharfstein said. “It will be like carrying an umbrella, and we’ll all be healthier for it.”

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