FDA Approves Emergency Use of Pfizer Vaccine for 12 to 15 Year Olds

Early last week, the FDA approved emergency usage of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for adolescents 12 to 15 years of age. This is an expansion of the emergency use authorization previously approved for those 16 years of age and older. In addition to the FDA’s expanded approval, the CDC also followed suit and recommended the use of the Pfizer vaccine for 12 to 15 year olds. Local COVID-19 vaccine providers, including the Ingham County Health Department, are now offering vaccines to anyone age 12 and up.

Again, vaccinations of those aged 12-15 will be incredibly crucial if we are to decrease transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 and potentially reach herd immunity. It will also be necessary if adolescents are to be able to return to school safely, protecting each other as well as their families and anybody else they come in contact with.

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Changes to Mask Rules for Fully Vaccinated People and Potential Impacts

On Thursday, the CDC announced revised mask recommendations, stating that "fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance." On Friday, Michigan announced a revised Gathering and Face Mask Order that removed the indoor mask requirement for people who are fully vaccinated. While there is scientific evidence that supports the changes, it may do more harm than good.

Most importantly, there is still a critical need to ensure that people who have not been fully vaccinated continue to wear masks to protect themselves and others who have not been or cannot be vaccinated. Enforcing mask mandates for those who have not been vaccinated may be virtually impossible now that the mask mandate does not apply to everyone. Without some sort of widespread "vaccine passport" system that allows people to provide quick, standard evidence indicating whether or not they have been vaccinated or another way to verify vaccination status, it is hard to imagine how the new rules can be effective. If we don't want to have vaccine passports, we likely can't have a set of rules that treats people differently based on whether or not they are vaccinated. The risk is not just to those who have not been vaccinated: The more the virus circulates among unvaccinated people, the more likely it is that mutations will occur and new variants will develop that can more easily infect people who have been vaccinated, which can undermine the effectiveness of vaccinations overall.

It is possible that those who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 (and who have no medical reason not to be vaccinated) could take advantage of the change in rules and inability of people to determine who the rules apply to as a way to not wear a mask, despite the rule exception not applying to them.

Many businesses and organizations have stated that they intend to keep mask requirements in place, but given the pressure and challenges that have been made over the past year by those who refuse to believe the threat of COVID-19 or the effectiveness of masks in reducing transmission, it is likely to be harder to keep those rules in place or enforce them now that the CDC and state have made these changes, particularly given the lack of a consistent way to determine who has and has not been vaccinated.

The change in rule has also been criticized as being premature: Only 36.7% of people in the United States and 36.2% of people in Michigan are fully vaccinated. Vaccination rates are slowing down throughout the U.S., as many people are beginning to think that the pandemic is over and that they no longer need to worry about it. The change in mask order is likely to reinforce that belief, and may result in many people not getting vaccinated who might have done so otherwise.

It is also important to stress that businesses, organizations, local governments, and others can still require masks, regardless of vaccination status. The rule change simply changes the federal recommendation and state-level requirement: It does not ban or prevent others from having mask requirements. If a business or government decides that the risk to their employees, customers, or community is still sufficient to warrant a mask mandate for those who have been fully vaccinated, they can and should do so, and people must follow those requirements.

Finally, it is critical to stress that the removal of a mask mandate does not mean that there is something wrong with wearing a mask. Mask-shaming, which has already been a problem over the past year, is likely to exponentially rise, with people mocking those who continue to wear a mask. This type of social pressure has clear negative impacts and has no positive impacts: Wearing a mask doesn't hurt anyone, and no one should be pressured not to wear one if they feel more comfortable wearing one. There are many reasons for a person to wear a mask, regardless of a requirement to do so:

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Lansing Ordinance Makes Possessing Drug Paraphernalia Legal

On Monday, May 11th, the Lansing City Council voted to repeal an ordinance that criminalizes possessing drug paraphernalia (accessories or equipment that may be used to make, use, or hide illegal drugs). Council Member Brian Jackson has been pushing to repeal some misdemeanor ordinances that are overreaching, outdated, or redundant. By repealing these ordinances, the hope is that it will cut down on over-policing and over-criminalization, which disproportionately targets and impacts BIPOC. Possessing drug paraphernalia is still illegal on a state level, but Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon says her office typically does not charge people for violating the state law. Drug addiction and/or misuse is a public health issue, not a criminal issue. It is counterproductive to criminalize addiction or misuse. Repealing this ordinance and others could be a step towards reducing the possibility of discriminatory enforcement by police and the criminal justice system as a whole. 

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Michigan Ends Work-From-Home Requirement

Michigan also announced the end of the state's work-from-home mandate last week, which required businesses to have employees work from home if their job could reasonably be done from home, due to the risk of COVID-19. The change in rule is the result of Michigan hitting a 55% vaccination rate, which was part of the Governor's "MI Vacc to Normal" plan announced last month. The 55% rate is the percentage of people 16 and older in the state who have had at least one shot, which has quickly become an outdated metric: COVID-19 vaccines are now approved for people aged 12 and up, and the state's COVID-19 Vaccine Dashboard has already been updated to include younger people in all data, putting the current percentage at 49.9%. More importantly, the number of people who are fully vaccinated is more scientifically relevant than those who are partially vaccinated, and that rate is only at 42.1% of those 12 and up (and 36.2% of the entire state population). It is also important to note that the 55% metric is not based on any clear scientific rationale: A 55% vaccination rate does not mean that we have herd immunity or that we are at substantially less risk than we were a few weeks ago. The change in rule will likely result in many businesses requiring employees to return to work, and many employees may not feel comfortable with that change yet, particularly given that the majority of people in the state have not been fully vaccinated and with the additional removal of the statewide indoor mask mandate for fully vaccinated people.

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Georgia Repeals Citizen’s Arrest Law after Murder of Ahmaud Arbery

This week, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed an overhaul of the state’s citizen’s arrest law, which had been in place since 1863. This new legislation comes after the Georgia legislature passed a hate crime bill last year. Both pieces of legislation come after outrage from the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. The previous citizen’s arrest law is being used to defend the men who killed Mr. Arbery last February. The law was incredibly vague and stated that any citizen was allowed to arrest another if a crime was committed within the immediate knowledge. The law now states that citizen detainment is allowed only in specific circumstances, such as shopkeepers who witness a person shoplifting or restaurant employees who witness customers leaving without paying. The law also prohibits any use of force that is likely to cause death or bodily harm unless it is for self-defense. Georgia is the first state to repeal their citizen’s arrest law in the country.

The signing of the law is moving forward as the three men involved with Ahmaud Arbery’s killing are being charged with state and federal crimes. A federal arraignment for hate crimes and attempted kidnapping charges occurred Tuesday, and they all pled not guilty. Attorneys for the defendants asked a judge to allow evidence of Mr. Arbery’s criminal record and other prior problems, while prosecutors are fighting to keep those out of the trial. The introduction of prior history that has no direct bearing on a case is a common tactic used to try to convince jurors and the public that people of color that have been killed are less worthy of life, or that their death was their own fault. Prosecutors have also asked the judge to allow text messages from the defendants that contain racist slurs and social media posts with racist themes. The defendants claim they were pursuing Mr. Arbery because they thought he had committed a burglary, but no evidence of that has ever been found. The defendants armed themselves with firearms, chased Mr. Arbery through the neighborhood while yelling at him, attempted to restrain him and detain him against his will, before fatally shooting him at close range. The defendents have pleaded not guilty to state charges of malice and felony murder, counts of aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal attempt to committ false imprisonment. Jury selection for the state trial is scheduled to begin October 18th. 

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WHO Classifies Mutant COVID-19 Variant B.1.617 from India as Variant of Concern

Early last week, a World Health Organization official stated that they would be reclassifying the B.1.617 variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 from a “variant of interest” to a “variant of concern.” This variant, first found in India, has been one of the primary variants in the recent, devastating second wave of COVID-19 in India. This variant has been added alongside B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and the P.1 variants which were first detected in the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil, respectively. Currently, the CDC still has the B.1.617 variant classified as a variant of interest.

The variant was first detected in December 2020, and early evidence has shown that this variant is more transmissible than the original strain of the virus. There is still a lack of data but early evidence suggests that vaccines are still effective against this variant, but that their efficacy against it may be reduced. It is also important to note that the virus continues to mutate, further showing the importance of partaking in as many measures as possible to prevent transmission. This includes getting vaccinated as soon as possible and continuing to wear masks, practice proper hand hygiene, and socially distance when possible, especially if you are not vaccinated yourself and/or if you are not sure if others around you are vaccinated. We must continue to do our best to protect each other and ourselves 

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This Week's QM Round-Up Contributors (in alphabetical order):