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All of the vaccines currently approved for emergency use in the U.S. are remarkably effective at preventing COVID, but that doesn't mean breakthrough cases are impossible—and naturally, it's easy to fixate on those relatively small number of instances where fully vaccinated people have gotten sick. It's important to remember, however, that these cases are almost all mild or asymptomatic, and that very few result in hospitalization or death. But there's one other "key point" to keep in mind, and former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, thinks it's worth reiterating: Vaccinated people who do get COVID are much less likely to transmit it to others.
In a May 23 appearance on CBS News' Face the Nation, host John Dickerson asked Gottlieb about the public health impact of getting vaccinated, noting, "If you're vaccinated, your ability to spread really almost disappears."
"I think that's a key point," Gottlieb said. "If you're fully vaccinated with one of the available vaccines, you're going to not only be much less likely to get infected, either symptomatic or asymptomatic infection, but if you do get infected, if you are vaccinated and you become asymptomatically infected, you're far less likely to transmit the infection."
As Gottlieb noted, the vaccines' ability to drastically reduce COVID transmission risk is something that hasn't been discussed as much, because it's not in the current FDA-approved labeling of the vaccines. "FDA [is] in a position where they really can't speak to this directly," he said.
This is a "key point" not only because it underlines the importance of getting vaccinated to protect those around you, but also because it informed the CDC's updated guidelines for fully vaccinated people. On May 13, the agency announced that those who were fully vaccinated—that is, two weeks out from their final COVID shot—could stop wearing a mask and social distancing in most situations. "What that change was predicated on was information that they have that gives them confidence" that vaccinated people are much less likely to spread the virus, Gottlieb explained.
Gottlieb isn't the first health expert to point out this undermentioned benefit to vaccination. In a May 16 interview with Face the Nation, White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, shared a very similar sentiment. "Even though there are breakthrough infections with vaccinated people, almost always the people are asymptomatic, and the level of virus is so low, it makes it extremely unlikely, not impossible, but very, very low likelihood that they are going to transmit it," Fauci said.
But even with all the available information about the efficacy of COVID vaccines, some vaccinated people are still reluctant to take off their masks, and health experts have stressed that they should not feel pressured to do so. "I think people may need to make individual assessments of their risk as they make judgments about what they should and should [not] be doing, like wearing a mask in an indoor setting and also judging the setting," Gottlieb said. That means those with underlying risks may want to keep their mask on indoors, while others might decide to wear a mask in crowded places where they don't know the vaccination status of the people around them.
Regardless of your mask behavior, the important thing is to get vaccinated, experts stress—especially because you probably won't get anyone else sick even if you do have a breakthrough case. "By getting vaccinated, you're protecting those around you, even if you're at lower risk, if you're someone who could potentially come into contact with the virus and put others at risk," Gottlieb said. "Getting vaccinated is going to substantially reduce the likelihood that you could introduce the infection into a setting where other people could be put at risk."