With vaccines on the way, it almost feels like the end of the pandemic is in sight. We’re all looking forward to casinos, bars, and restaurants reopening at full capacity and without masks. However, the vaccine rollout has been slow across the country. We’ll have to hit certain vaccination milestones for casinos to reopen. They won’t reopen all at once, either. They’ll do so in steps by slowly raising capacity limits and reintroducing shared surfaces. But even as businesses return to normal, many coronavirus precautions will remain in place.
We reached out to three doctors who’ve been carefully following the vaccine rollout. Dr. Eric Weinberg is the Vice President of Medical Education at PM Pediatrics. Dr. Christina Johns is the Vice President of Communications and Senior Medical Advisor for PM Pediatrics. Finally, Dr. Gary Gerlacher is the Vice President of Business Development and Vice President of Clinical Operations for PM Pediatrics. They gave us their thoughts on the vaccine rollout, how businesses can reopen, and how we’ll know when the pandemic ends.
A Snapshot Of The Vaccine Rollout
The United States’ vaccine rollout is slower than expected. Part of the reason is that some vaccine doses are being saved for people to get both shots. However, the larger and more avoidable issue has been a lack of federal coordination. “Once [the vaccine] is given to the state, then there is nothing else from the Fed,” Dr. Weinberg says. “The Fed is like, “Here you go.” And they’ve given some really rough guidelines as to who should be getting it but no guidance as to the how, which is by far the most important part.”
Having individual states–and even counties–solve logistical problems has not been good for vaccinations. The government’s original goal was to vaccinate 20 million Americans by the end of 2020. We made it to 2.7 million. Holding back doses to ensure everyone gets both shots doesn’t account for a lag like that. The states being left to themselves has slowed everyone down.
“It’s this incredibly complex problem,” Dr. Gerlacher says. “Every hospital has its own policy. Every pharmacy has its own policy. Every office has its own policy. It’s complicated.”
Vaccine Milestones That Will Let Us Reopen
If we want our casinos, bars, restaurants, and other businesses to reopen, there are a few vaccination targets we need to hit. “The numbers vary based on which epidemiologist you listen to,” says Dr. Weinberg. “But it seems like the consensus is around 70%. And that 70% is going to be a combination of those who are vaccinated and those who had the infection before and are now immune.”
However, the vaccination rate is an incomplete picture of the pandemic. The more relevant statistic to people who want to take their masks off is community spread. “[Community spread] is really a better indicator than the [vaccination rate],” says Dr. Johns. “Because…if you’ve been vaccinated, it will certainly protect you from getting sick. But we don’t know how well it does in terms of asymptomatic transmission.”
So, one of the ways we’ll know we hit our required vaccination threshold will be a drop in community transmission rates. Once they’re low enough, bars, restaurants, and casinos will be able to slowly reopen. “It’ll be a graded response,” says Dr. Johns. “where things can open up at 25% capacity–restaurants and bars and whatnot–then 50%. And I think it’ll move in that direction. And there may be, based on people’s activities and behaviors, five steps forward and two steps back…It may be fits and spurts that will require us to be nimble.”
We shouldn’t expect businesses to reopen fully until we approach herd immunity. And the first indication that we’re reaching herd immunity will be positive case rates in certain areas. So, casinos probably won’t increase customer capacity, table games, and food and drink services until the general population is vaccinated.
The Precautions We’ll Have To Take To Open
The vaccine is encouraging, but there’s one unknown piece of data. We still don’t know definitively whether the vaccine prevents vaccinated people from passing it to others. Moderna and Pfizer are still collecting vaccine data. “My understanding is the Phase 3 trial does not expand at all,” says Dr. Weinberg. “But [Moderna and Pfizer] do gather data from the general public about safety.” At the time of this writing, the United States has administered over 10 million vaccine doses. Moderna and Pfizer have a large sample size to make conclusions about their patients’ carrier statuses and safety.
But until we know we can’t spread it, we’ll have to keep the same precautions in place. “All the current precautions you take now you need to continue once you get the vaccine,” says Dr. Gerlacher. Since vaccinated people will continue mingling with the non-vaccinated for a while, it’ll be best to remain safe until we know we can’t breathe the virus on innocent bystanders.
When Will The Pandemic End?
We led with the vaccination milestones needed to open businesses because predicting a timeline is challenging. This is being written a week before President Biden’s inauguration. His plans for the vaccine will determine the vaccine rollout speed going forward. But each of us can keep the timeline moving by getting the vaccine when it’s available to us.
“If people don’t want to get it or people decide to wait, it’s gonna prolong the pandemic,” says Dr. Weinberg. “It’s just simple math.”
That delay could be dramatic. We could go from returning to normal in summer 2021 to dealing with the pandemic until summer 2022. One of the most important variables will be each person’s willingness to get the vaccine. It’s the only path back to normal–especially a timely normal.
What Casino Goers Need To Know Now
As states approach their Phase 2’s of public vaccinations, older casino patrons may feel confident returning to casinos. Here’s what a 75-year-old with both shots needs to know about going back to the casino now.
“[The shots] do a great job of protecting that 75-year-old guy,” says Dr. Johns. “So in terms of him feeling confident about getting back out, I think that is fairly high. But I think what he needs to do to be a good steward of public health is still going to need to be distancing and, of course, wearing a mask. I think we’re going to be in for that for quite a while.”
“And the hand hygiene stuff. Especially out at casinos.”
Casinos are in a strange spot. Some of their patrons will be vaccinated well before their employees. Patrons will have to adhere to distancing, hygiene, and masks even when casinos can reopen. The end is in sight, but it won’t arrive unless everyone does their part to end the pandemic. That includes our country’s leaders leading distribution efforts to the pharmaceutical industries keeping up with production to each eligible person getting vaccinated in their turn. None of our timeline predictions mean anything unless everyone comes together to do their part.
Editor’s note: Dr. Gary Gerlacher is author Chris Gerlacher’s father. Their relationship did not influence Dr. Gerlacher’s responses in any way.