What are the risks of being around people who are unvaccinated?

·News Reporter
·5-min read

As NSW begins to open up from Monday, Sydneysiders will be embracing a raft of freedoms they've been denied for nearly four months thanks to its untimely Delta Covid outbreak.

And while it is over six weeks until unvaccinated people will be granted the same privileges on December 1, there will still be plenty of opportunity for crossovers between those with and without both jabs.

So what is the risk posed by being in the presence of someone unvaccinated?

Public health expert Dr Lucas de Toca, who leads the Primary Care Response to the COVID-19 pandemic at the Department of Health, said while the vaccine will significantly reduce the risk of illness, severe complications and death, it will not stop you from acquiring the virus or passing it on.

"They reduce the risk of getting Covid at all and then they reduce the risk of you transmitting it to others," he said.

From Monday, vaccinated Sydneysiders can gather in groups of 30 outdoors and by December 1, unvaccinated people can join them. Source: AAP
From Monday, vaccinated Sydneysiders can gather in groups of 30 outdoors and by December 1, unvaccinated people can join them. Source: AAP

"They have an impact on protecting others but there is still a risk, even if it's smaller, that you can get the virus and pass it on to others even if vaccinated."

He said it was therefore vital Covid-safe behaviours were still practised around others, including family members and friends who may be vulnerable to the virus.

Mixing with unvaccinated unavoidable but can be reduced 

Professor Jaya Dantas of Curtin University's School of Population Health told Yahoo News Australia vaccinated people should tread with caution when knowingly or unknowingly mixing with unvaccinated people. 

"There will be breakthrough infections among those who are vaccinated if they mingle with the unvaccinated," she warned. 

UNSW epidemiologist and World Health Organisation advisor Professor Mary-Louise McLaws warned that mingling could be unavoidable, particularly due to the living arrangements of many young Sydneysiders.

She said other scenarios that could pose risks of unknowingly mixing with unvaccinated people included boarding public transport, attending university and picking up children from school. She said without vaccine mandates in such settings, clusters of infection were likely to arise.

Prof Dantas echoed Dr de Toca's advice, insisting key Covid-safe measures including masks and social distancing should not be forgotten once the country begins to open up.

People cheers with their beers inside a pub.
Pubs will reopen on Monday but how will they respond to unvaccinated customers weeks later? Source: Getty, file.

Precautions needed around younger Australians

Prof Dantas said Australia was a long way off herd immunity with children under 12 not yet eligible for a vaccine and poorer vaccine rates in younger Australians than those older.

She said while people's concerns may be focused around public settings, family reunions in the home, where multiple generations finally gather after months of separation, were also dangerous.

Prof Dantas noted people were undoubtedly eager to see grandparents and older relatives but should take precautions to avoid infecting them due to their vulnerability, even if they are vaccinated. 

The Delta outbreak has seen a rise in transmission in children and Prof Dantas said adults should be vaccinated and wearing masks when around them. 

She pointed to several Asian countries where children are also wearing masks to help prevent transmission and said it was a helpful precaution, particularly for families with vulnerable members.

Her advice comes as Victoria mandated face masks for all children in grades three to six as students start returning to the classroom.

A new preliminary study from the US indicates that once a Delta breakthrough case occurs, the viral load of the infected person is similar to that of an unvaccinated person, heightening the importance of avoiding transmission scenarios.

What can businesses do?

Prof Dantas said once unvaccinated people are allowed into venues such as pubs and restaurants, businesses will be given a choice as to who they allow in and how they manage them.

She said one option restaurants, pubs and bars may want to do is seat unvaccinated people outside and vaccinated people inside, reducing the risk of transmission. 

Councils across Australia's major cities have embraced outdoor service, providing businesses with additional seating amid the pandemic.

Prof Dantas said patrons "should be concerned" if venues had not taken any precautions with unvaccinated guests.

What can I do? 

Residents are likely to face a scenario where someone they know and see is unvaccinated. 

Prof Dantas said vaccinated people should "set up rules" when they want to mingle with people without the jab.

"You can say when organising an event 'I want everyone to be vaccinated but if you're not it's much better if people wear masks'," she advised.

She said it was a difficult task singling out unvaccinated people and if accomodating them, it would be favourable to hold an event outside for greater protection.

What happens moving forward?

The Western Australian government made the landmark decision to require attendees at school leavers events in November to have at least one jab. 

Prof Dantas says she believes that the move is a sign of things to come and other states will adopt similar requirements moving forward. 

Prof Dantas echoed Dr de Toca's advice, insisting key Covid safe measures including masks and social distancing should not be forgotten once the country begins to open up.n entry requirement or to provide peace of mind among friends and family.

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