Epidemiologist and science communications specialist Jessica Malaty Rivera shares her insights on the pandemic.

By Stacey Leasca
April 28, 2021
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Jessica Rivera, a guest of the Let's Go Together Podcast
Credit: Guest photo: Erica McConnel

Travel has most certainly changed over the last year. Rather than planning trips to faraway destinations, we've mostly stayed put, going on virtual trip after virtual trip from our living rooms. However, as more people get the COVID-19 vaccine, a return to travel appears to be on the horizon. We're celebrating the reopening of borders and re-booked tickets with all-new episodes of our podcast, Let's Go Together, which highlights how travel changes the way we see ourselves and the world.

In the first season, our pilot and adventurer host, Kellee Edwards, introduced listeners to diverse globe-trotters who showed us that travelers come in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life. From the first black woman to travel to every country on Earth to a man who trekked to Machu Picchu in a wheelchair, we met some incredible folks. And now, in our second season, Edwards is back to introduce you to new people, new places, and new perspectives.

In our latest episode, Edwards speaks to Jessica Malaty Rivera, an infectious disease epidemiologist and science communications specialist, about everything from the complexities of pandemics to what's up with vaccines and when it'll be safe to travel again.

"I want to make sure that folks understand that those of us in public health don't delight in being the bearers of bad news and making it seem we're just naysayers and... want to have everybody have their plans ruined," Rivera tells Edwards in the show. "We ourselves have had our joy and our grief deferred because of this pandemic. We've had so many things come up that have been deeply hurtful and hard because of this pandemic. So I want people to understand that I have a tremendous amount of empathy for how challenging this has been. And I also want to thank people and encourage them that all of these sacrifices that people have made are not in vain."

As for traveling again, Rivera wants people to get out and explore, but to also know they must truly prepare for the new post-pandemic travel world by doing some important pre-trip homework.

As she says, travelers must find out of their intended destination, "What's the hospital infrastructure like there? What does vaccine rollout look like there? Who's getting vaccinated? Is it fair? Is it equitable? Does it make you feel you can actually be in those communities and not just reek of privilege on your own? I'm not trying to guilt or shame anybody into this, but I think it should be a consideration because there are people who are essential workers in communities that will be at risk in order to make sure that you have a wonderful experience."

Hear more from Rivera and Edwards about the future of travel and the pandemic on Let's Go Together, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Player.FM, and everywhere podcasts are available.

-----Transcript-----

Kellee: Hi, my name is Kellee Edwards...and this is Let's Go Together, a podcast from Travel + Leisure about the ways travel connects us, and what happens when you don't let anything stop you from seeing the world.  On this episode we speak with Jessica [Ma-lati] Rivera, an epidemiologist and science communications specialist, who's job over the last year has been to clearly communicate the complexities of the pandemic and response to the public. With the rollout of the vaccine underway, there finally seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel, however the road to recovery is slow and steady, and we need to remain vigilant.   We chat with Jessica about her role with the COVID Tracking Project, as well as her thoughts on when and how we can safely travel again. 

Jessica Malaty Rivera: My name is Jessica Malaty Rivera. I'm an infectious disease epidemiologist and a science communicator. Right now, I am the Science Communication Lead for the COVID Tracking Project. And I have been doing research on emerging infectious disease outbreaks for the last 10 years or more. I do a lot of science communication on social media as well, debunking myths about everything from the virus to the vaccine. And I just, I'm really happy to be here to help kind of talk about what's going on with COVID.

Kellee Edwards: That's awesome. Because, yes we do have lots of questions. I'm sure that you get asked things all the time just because of who you are and your platform and your knowledge. So can you tell us about your background and how you became involved as a communications professional in infectious diseases?

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yeah, so it's kind of an interesting story. Over 10 years ago, I was in graduate school at Georgetown in the School of Medicine. I was studying Emerging Infectious Diseases. That's where I got my masters in. But while I was at Georgetown, I also worked for the Division of Integrated Biodefense, which essentially was a government funded project that was tracking emerging outbreaks in animals and humans. And we were tasked with essentially identifying indicators and warnings of the next pandemic. Our team actually did do that too when we identified some unusual trends in Mexico that eventually ended up being the 2009, H1N1 pandemic.

And it was really exciting work. What we were essentially doing was translating media from all over the world from 50 different languages into English summary reports that were maybe four to six sentences long. So I got really good at kind of translating complex information into understandable, digestible, judgment free communications for a very wide audience. And the wide audience was everybody from... People who just are in defense and only know government things, to people who are also doctors and understand the clinical stuff. So it was really exciting to be part of like, helping people make quick judgements and quick understanding of situations in public health.

Very tragically that work was underfunded and then eventually defunded and we all have been fairly familiar with kind of the way the pandemic has panned out in the US largely due to a devaluing of public health and even bio-surveillance, which was something that I had committed a lot of my career to. So since then I've been doing a lot of science communication for a number of companies that need help translating everything from clinical trial data to white papers, to even tweets for some companies. And I've gotten used to speaking kind of the language of science and the language of laypeople.

And I feel very strongly to that the work that I do is not dumbing it down. I think that what I'm trying to do is elevate people's science and data literacy. And I think that requires a certain kind of language to do that. And without being patronizing and judgmental, because like you mentioned earlier, people still don't get it and that's totally fine. I'm biased to get it because I've spent my entire career in this space. And so I'm here to just help make it all make sense.

Kellee Edwards: Well, we love that and we need that. Tell us about your work with the COVID tracking project.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: It started with a few journalists who were trying to gather information on COVID testing very early in the pandemic, and they realized very quickly that there wasn't kind of reliable central source for that kind of data. So they started some spreadsheets to collect that data from States and territories. And then eventually it was very clear that this data was just not being aggregated anywhere else. And so what turned into a spreadsheet ended up being one of the most impactful of volunteer led organizations that was tracking all of the COVID data related to testing, hospital outcomes, deaths, et cetera, from all 56 States and jurisdictions.

And we kind of functioned a rogue arm of the government, essentially by doing all that work, we would publish it every single day. It was a very manual process. It wasn't automated. And we would write everything from blog posts to explain kind of the nuances and the complexities of the data. Also shed light to the lack of transparency and the gaps that there are in data, especially as it relates to race and ethnicity. So we did that work for an entire year. We actually stopped data collection on March 7th, but we are still working on a number of post data collection analysis to kind of help guide people to the reliable sources that are available now and what should have always been the source, which is the federal government.

Kellee Edwards: I see. That sounds a lot, a lot of work and necessary work at that.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yes.

Kellee Edwards: How do you think the COVID response has been going? And I love for you to touch on a couple of things. Let's start with in regards to national policy.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: It's so hard to simplify that answer into one thing, it's so many things. Like I mentioned before, I'd been working in the public health world of biosurveillance and detecting emerging outbreaks for awhile. And the fact that we didn't have that funded and prioritized, put us at a huge disadvantage. So our response was instead of preparedness, it was very reactionary and delayed. We could have gotten an edge over this virus if we had started testing enough. And if we were testing enough, very early on an LPS. I'll be very frank, we have never tested enough even a year in, we're still not testing enough each day.

But if we were testing enough from the very beginning, we could have kind of like other countries that had much more success in controlling the virus, had a system in place where we could have done contact tracing. When you do effective contact tracing, you can essentially identify the populations in which the virus is spreading and you can effectively slow the spread by keeping people at home and making sure that they're not spreading it to others. But the virus was spreading unchecked for several weeks and at that point it had become so widespread that we kind of lost our edge and... never have been able to catch up. And when we're talking specifically about data, for instance there was never a federal standard for that either. So each state was kind of fending for themselves and figuring out infrastructure systems and systems to communicate back to the CDC and HHS on their own. And then we had Ed Yong, very famously wrote this article about the Patchwork Pandemic. That's exactly how to describe it. It was a Patchwork Pandemic which affected all 56 States and jurisdictions differently. They responded in 56 different ways. They tested in 56 different ways. They reported in 56 different ways.

And I think because of that trying to make sense out of all of these disparate systems has been just very, very difficult work. And I think that we've learned a lot. I think that we now know that when you don't prepare for a pandemic and it happens, you get really horrible outcomes. And... that's a terrible lesson to learn.

Kellee Edwards: How do you feel the COVID response has been with regards to the vaccine rollout?

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Man, that's another deep, deep side. In fairness to at least the front end of this, I think Operation Warp Speed were terribly named, was incredibly effective in the fact that it allowed for these vaccines to not have any of the financial and logistical and bureaucratic hiccups that typically happen in clinical trial research. A lot of times, you have issues of enrollment or finances that are kind of interrupting the flow of phases. But because we didn't have that, we pumped in billions of dollars to prevent that. It meant that we were able to kind of see these trials successfully go on without interruption.

Now, what I wished was that we had also thought about the full picture of vaccines. So what we call in vaccines is the last mile, the last mile is getting those vaccines actually to people. So the common phrase of vaccines save lives. Well, if you think about it, vaccines don't save lives. Vaccinations do, because we need those vaccines in bodies. We don't need them in vials... sitting in freezers or sitting on trucks, getting to freezers. And I think because of that, we didn't prioritize how to support States to get those vaccines and set up those vaccination sites and set up the employment structure for people to actually do that stuff. On top of the fact that we didn't prioritize funding of vaccine communications. Many people like myself knew from the very beginning a vaccine would be in the horizon. And vaccine hesitancy is not a new issue. We anticipated the anti-vaccine community to jump on this and to create doubt from the very beginning, which they certainly did.

And I think because of that, once again, we were in another catch-up mode, catching up with comms, catching up with logistics, catching up with testing, vaccination centers and appointment systems and even websites that can handle the traffic for these vaccine appointments. So it could've gotten so much better.

Kellee Edwards: What do you see as some of the challenges, and what ways that the response can be better since you've pointed out the flaws in the system? How can some of these things be made better?

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yeah. And I don't want people to hear this and think only doom and gloom and everything is terrible. I definitely think that right now we are seeing very encouraging signs of the daily number of vaccines going up. And we're about to kind of get to hopefully a three million per day average that will really, really expedite the process of getting to herd immunity, hopefully later this year, maybe early next year. So I think that things that can be better are exactly that, realizing where we didn't actually fund things, where we didn't prioritize things and fix it.

We don't need to be creating more problems right now. We have all the tools in our toolkit. We just need to be using the tools. And now that we have three really safe and effective vaccines, let's do everything we can to make sure that those States have the systems in order to make that happen. So that vaccines actually end up in people's arms and not just sitting around.

Kellee Edwards [16:52]: Now, we started with two vaccines. Now we have a total of three.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yeah.

Kellee Edwards: I know a lot of people have been trying to decide which one to take, especially when Johnson and Johnson came out with one, that was also just one shot, which I think people we're happy to know. But what is the difference between the three of them, if a person has to choose what's the information that you would say that they need the most to be able to decide which one works for them?

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yeah. This is such a good question. So I will say, and I'll say this till my dying day, the best COVID-19 vaccine is the vaccine that is available to you. And that's because by them being available to you, it means that they have been regularly tested, that the safety and efficacy profiles of those vaccines have been proven to be beneficial and you can trust it. So when we compare the three vaccines, we've got Pfizer, Moderna, which are incredibly similar. I would say that the differences are so minor. It's not really even worth parsing through.

I'll just go ahead and describe Pfizer, Moderna, as the category of mRNA vaccine, and then the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which is an adenovirus vector vaccine.

The mRNA vaccine is a fascinating way to train your body to see... It's essentially giving your body a blueprint. It's saying, this is what the spike protein of the coronavirus looks like. Build the spike protein, your body builds those spike proteins, and then your immune system recognizes it as a foreign antigen as something that doesn't belong there. And then your immune system comes in and creates antibodies to fight that. So there's no virus in the vaccine. There's no genetic material that is altering your genetic material.

That mRNA actually doesn't even go into your nucleus, which is where your DNA is. It just sends a message and it degrades quickly after, and then your body does the rest of the work. So whatever is lasting is your immune system. It's not the vaccine itself. Vaccines do not stay in your body for a long time. I know there's a lot of misinformation about long-term consequences and what that means. The majority of vaccine events that happen if it does happen, which are extremely rare. They happen within moments or hours or maybe weeks maximum, which is why the FDA didn't even allow these companies to submit their application for consideration of Emergency Use Authorization.

And so they had eight weeks safety data post vaccination because that's like worst case scenario, the window in which something would happen. Now, for context to the first person to receive a mRNA vaccine in a trial happened on March 16th, 2020. That is over a year ago. That is long-term data that we have that shows us that there are no concerns for long-term issues and that it is not scientifically plausible for something to happen longer than that. Then going to the other vaccine, adenovirus vector, this is actually a type of vaccine that has been successful for Ebola, which is really great.

Johnson and Johnson also was responsible for that mechanism. Essentially, they take adenovirus vector, which is a virus that causes a typical cold, they've modified it so that it cannot replicate, meaning it can't make you sick. And it is a vector, which means it carries the message to the body. It carries the vaccine message to the body. And essentially the outcome is very similar. It'll eventually lead to the body creating that spike protein, fighting that spike protein with your antibodies, and then having that memory, those memory immune cells recognize it if it comes into contact with it again.

Kellee Edwards: Okay. So we've talked about herd immunity of the different vaccines. And now can we touch a little bit on the variance? I think that is what freaks people out, a lot. They're like, listen, right when we got used to what was happening now, then all of a sudden there's a new strain, there's a new variant. And it's like, Oh boy, how are we making progress when things keep evolving and changing. And I know you have an opinion on that and I would love for you to share that with us.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yeah. So I think it's important for people to remember that viruses mutate all the time. It's what they do. They replicate. And as they replicate, they make copies of themselves. And in that process, it can be a little bit imperfect and typos effectively can happen. So there are mistakes that can happen. Those mistakes are called mutations. When mutations accumulate that change the behavior or the mechanism of the virus, then that would be considered a variant. But viral mutations is like par for the course. It's extremely common, especially for RNA viruses.

So the fact that we have variance comes at no surprise, it was bound to happen. I think the fact that we're seeing these variants emerge is showing us that the virus continues to replicate and it's only replicating because there are more people to infect. I think there's an important lesson to be learned here. A virus can only mutate if it's infecting more people because it needs a body to chain, to replicate. And then in that replication, it changes. So if we slow the spread of the disease, we essentially are slowing the process of mutation.

We're also slowing the spread of those mutations. So that's why it's been so important to reduce transmission because the more bodies the virus has to go in, the more opportunities it has to change and mutate into new variants. Now that said, I know variants can sound very scary. People think it is like, these out of control, unrecognizable, Frankenstein type virus, that's just the farthest thing from the truth. Even words like more transmissible can get a little bit inflammatory because, what does that mean? What it doesn't mean is that all of a sudden masks don't work. What it doesn't mean is that all of a sudden you have to like stay 27 feet away instead of six.

Like that's not the difference that we're seeing. What we're potentially seeing is maybe a person who's infected is infectious for a little bit longer. And if that's the case, that's why we're trying to tell people, let's consider double masking so that we ensure that you have proper coverage over your face. And let's be sure that we are maintaining physical distancing and avoiding the very high risk things like indoor activities. Now on the good news so far, all of the early data from the clinical trials on the vaccines have shown that every vaccine that we've seen so far in the US does have protective ability against the variance.

Now, what that means too, is that it's possible you could have, what they call breakthrough infection, meaning you would still get sick after vaccination. But what's very unlikely is that you would get severely sick and or die because these vaccines are so effective at preventing those severe outcomes. I'll also say that, in the history of vaccines, the primary goal of all vaccines is to do exactly that. It's to prevent you from getting severely sick, hospitalized and dying. And now we're seeing that there's early data coming through that. These vaccines are probably also preventing transmission, which is also a great sign for the variants.

Meaning if you get the vaccine, you potentially may have a low enough viral load, if you do get exposed to not be a risk to others. Now that doesn't mean that once you're vaccinated, you have super powers and you can just do whatever you want. Because again, this is a group project. We have to make sure that everybody is protected before we can drop our shoulders.

And, by all means, I do want people to have a moment of celebration and say, I will not go to the hospital for COVID. I will not die from COVID. Those are such triumphant things to declare after that vaccination. And I think that, that is something we should encourage people to feel joyous about. It should just not cause you to make risky choices, especially once, we're still waiting for others to get vaccinated.

Kellee: After the break, I ask Jessica about her thoughts on traveling during the pandemic, now that the vaccine is starting to get rolled out. 

Kellee: (script) I'm Kellee Edwards, and this is Let's Go Together from Travel + Leisure. My guest today is epidemiologist and science communications specialist, Jessica Malaty Rivera.  We've learned a lot from Jessica about her thoughts on how the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is going, as well as what's going on with the vaccines, but now it's time to ask her about what's really important to us: It's time for us to start talking about travel in COVID.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yeah.

Kellee Edwards: I have been traveling... I never stopped traveling, I'll say that. I've also haven't gotten COVID and I've taken 23 nasal tests in the name of my job for traveling, my job as a host for TV. It's like at some point, the show, they were making sure it was still going on in a very safe way. But it's definitely affected a lot of people. The pandemic put lots of trips and vacation plans on hold this past year. What do you think needs to happen before people can comfortably travel again?

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Right. So, travel for many folks has not stopped. Some of that essential, some of that not, and I'm not here to say that all traveling must cease under all circumstances. I've actually never said that. I think that some people have to travel and some people are making choices that have reduced risk for travel. Now that said, we are not at the point yet where air travel and long distance travel and international travel is necessarily recommended. The CDC has made that very clear that we are still in a very much in the middle of the pandemic and I want to bring up the issue of equity. I think that there's a huge conversation that we're missing here when it comes to privilege and equity, when it comes to travel.

Are you leaving your home, your origin location because you have the vaccine, because you have great testing because community transmission is low and you're going to take all those privileges and then hop on a plane and go to a place where those three may not be the case. And I think that, that's something we need to sit with and recognize... the fact that, okay, you may be going to a place that is a wonderful escape from your reality of quarantine, but what's the hospital infrastructure like there. What does vaccine rollout look like there? Who's getting vaccinated? Is it fair? Is it equitable? Does it make you feel you can actually be in those communities and not just reek of privilege on your own? Do you know? And I'm not trying, again, guilt or shame anybody into this, but I think it should be a consideration because there are people who are essential workers in communities that will be at risk in order to make sure that you have a wonderful experience.

And I just want to make sure that before I get on a plane, I will do the best that I can to make sure that I'm not going only because my experience with this pandemic has become easier.

Kellee Edwards: Absolutely. Essential travel is the key here, as you're saying.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yeah. Yeah.

Kellee: The CDC has released new guidance regarding travel and vaccinations.   Fully vaccinated people, meaning people who've waited 2 weeks since their last recommended dose of the vaccine, can travel within the United States without needing to take a COVID-19 test or undergo post-travel self-quarantine as long as they continue to take precautions while traveling, such as wearing a mask, avoiding crowds, socially distancing, and washing hands frequently  However, Jessica still warns that getting vaccinated shouldn't necessarily be the green light to begin vacation planning. 

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Like I mentioned earlier, vaccines we're never going to be a silver bullet. It's going to be a number of things to get us to that place where we are post pandemic. So, testing enough, making sure that transmission is low, making sure that vaccines are up, making sure that people are physically distancing and avoiding high risk gathering so that we can do all those things. Have people healthy enough for vaccination, have transmission low. It's going to be an additive combined process. Now, I think that the vaccines are definitely our best way to achieve that sooner rather than later, because the more people that are vaccinated, the more kind of bodies we create as dead ends for the virus, essentially.

We are stopping the virus from spreading, by being protected because of the vaccine. At this point we're kind of at this interesting crossroads though, with the pandemic. It's kind of a race between the vaccines and the variants. And if we don't get an edge over the variance of the vaccines, we potentially risk having a fourth surge and potentially slowing down this amazing progress that we've been able to see throughout the country and in many parts of the world. So yes, I think it's a part of the process, but I also think that we need to be very sober-minded right now, because if we let our guard down, look like, what's happening to Miami, they just declared a state of emergency because spring breakers are going nuts over there.

Kellee Edwards: Wilding out.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yeah. So, that's showing us and this is what really gets me. If you look at the trend lines, it looks like a roller coaster. It's up, down, up, down. And that's exactly why we keep saying we can't just reopen and close and reopen. It's this yo-yo effect. We have to state the course. We need to be vigilant and not get impatient and then change our policies and change our behavior and increase our risk. We're at this point where the end is truly insight. I've been saying it's going to be awhile for a while. And now I'm saying it doesn't have to be much longer, if we just stay the course.

Kellee Edwards: I think what people want to know is, realistically, when do we think or believe that this pandemic will be over? When do you believe, Jessica?

Jessica Malaty Rivera: I don't think I could, or any epidemiologists could say with any kind of certainty a date or even a month, but my hope is that, and this is what I've been saying for a few months. My hope is that our holidays this year will look very different from how they were last year. That's my hope.

Kellee Edwards: Okay. So basically everybody who is thinking that summer is going to be it. I'm going to need everybody to slow down and don't go out and be all willy nilly with it.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: I definitely think we can a good summer. I think that because we can do a lot of outdoor... outdoor things.

Kellee Edwards: I feel in some ways, I think a lot of us are kind of traumatized when everything does open back up. How do you react? Are we still going to be super paranoid because a person's not wearing their mask? What has this done to our psyche?

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Oh my gosh. My husband and I talk about this all the time when we're watching movies and we're like, Oh my God, look at that large group. And it just seems, you cringe, you have this shutter effect, a response to people doing things that you've been not doing for so long, like eating in a restaurant. We joke about how, man, I just wish we could just time more up and be six inches from each other's face screaming. What do you want to drink in a bar? I would love to do that again. But I also think, will I ever do that again?

Kellee Edwards: Never again. I don't think so.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: But I do think that there is a muscle memory that a lot of us have adopted through this pandemic of, now I understand that I don't exist in my own bubble of health. That my health affects other people.

And I think for me personally, masks aren't going away from me for a long time. I'm not going to wear them after the pandemic for no reason. But if it's flu season and I've got a tickle in my throat, I'm bringing a mask with me if I'm going out.

Kellee Edwards: Listen, I say the exact same thing.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yeah.

Kellee Edwards: I don't think I will get rid of my mask so soon because I also have realized I have not been sick in the past year when I normally get sick at least twice per year.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Same.

Kellee Edwards: And I was like, this is interesting. I'm like, Oh, I was out there just very exposed. So of course, a person sneezes or coughs, they say, excuse me. You kind of move over, but you're still catching a lot of that. But not with these masks on, that definitely is been the upside of this. A lot of people, not getting our normal colds that we would get. So, whew.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: I know.

Kellee Edwards: What do you think people need to keep in mind to keep safe when taking flights and staying at hotels and Airbnbs or going on road trips?

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yeah. So, I've been really impressed with a number of travel companies and accommodations that have pivoted to make their places safe as possible. And I think one of the best ways that I've seen that applied is through hotels when they have pivoted to do contactless check-in and check-out. I think that is so wonderful to do that. Everything digital, you can unlock rooms with your phone or with an app. It's really amazing what they've been able to do. I think the best case scenario in that situation is contactless check-in and check-out and access to rooms that are straight from the street.

Meaning, you don't have to go into a lobby or into an elevator. But again, even still, if you can avoid kind of the concierge process, I know, it removes the human part of it, but that's the place that we're in right now to reduce risks. I know a number of hotels also have eliminated room service and have made everything kind of a la cart, if you want to buy something from the restaurant, you can bring it back up to your room. I think all of those things are great measures to keep travel consistently happening and safer.

I am always going to recommend car travel over air travel, if possible. If it's not possible, there are ways, and this is, again, this is the problem of the logistics of travel. If you want it to be extra safe you would budget enough time for quarantine on arrival and testing.

Kellee Edwards: And how long is that, because that varies as well? What is it currently?

Jessica Malaty Rivera: So, it varies. And I think that it varies even from State to State. Some, there California, I think for a while had a rule that if you were coming, even if you were a resident, if you were coming back that you needed to do a 10 day quarantine on arrival, nobody was doing that.

And I think that some places are like, "Oh, well at least get tested on day five to seven after you arrived." But again, some people go for five days and they're not even there to do the test before they're already on their way back. So it just really depends... I think that post vaccination is a little bit different because again, your risk of infection, especially if you're fully vaccinated and when I mean fully vaccinated, I mean, at least two weeks after your final dose.

That's when you considered fully vaccinated by the CDC. That's because it gives your body enough time to really mount that immune response, build those antibodies, et cetera. It's a little bit different after that. It's not recommended that you just travel willy nilly, but I also think that, you can do it and know that you're likely to not be sick and likely to not transmit it to others. Now you should still be wearing your mask. You should still be avoiding close contact and avoiding indoor contact with other people, but it's a little bit less concerning.

Kellee Edwards: Right. What are the numbers for a successful vaccination per se, meaning, people say nothing's really a hundred percent effective. How effective are these three vaccines?

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yeah. So I think that this is a great question and it reminds me of what we were talking about earlier. The goal of every vaccine is to keep you out of the hospital and alive. And all of these vaccines do that wonderfully with extremely high efficacy. Efficacy is measured in a controlled clinical trial setting. Effectiveness is what we determined in the real world, based on data. We have seen that the efficacy and the effectiveness of these vaccines is extremely high for doing those two main things, keeping you out of the hospital, keeping you from dying. So on that front, all three of these vaccines are extremely safe and effective and have high effectiveness.

When you start to compare things like the 94%, 95% and the 66% for Johnson and Johnson, it's a very incomplete comparison because context is lost here. So if you think about the timeline of these vaccines, when Moderna and Pfizer were being tested, they were tested here in the US and they were tested pre-variants, and they had extremely high efficacy metrics that came out of the trials. Johnson and Johnson was tested in a bunch of places, including places that had extremely high transmission and variants circulating in Brazil and in the UK and in South Africa.

So because of that, you kind of have to think about it like, they got a harder test than the first class. So Pfizer and Moderna did it when things were a little bit easier. Johnson and Johnson did it when the disease burden was greater on the vaccine. So it was working in a different context. So you can't say that 66% is Johnson and Johnson getting a D and 94, 95 is Pfizer and Moderna getting an A or A-. That's just the farthest thing from the truth. The main points that you want to look at is those outcomes that we're trying to maintain, which is keeping people from getting really sick, hospitalized or end, dying.

Kellee Edwards: So if you put it in that context then, are they saying that the 60, it only worked to keep people without the disease and also without being hospitalized only up to 66%.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: No.

Kellee Edwards: We got that number now, how do they get the number?

Jessica Malaty Rivera: The 66 is just the overall, but if you look at the total breakdown, it's 66 overall. It was 85 against severe illness. It was 100% against hospitalization and 100% against death. All three of them…

Kellee Edwards: Got it.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: ... are 100% effective in their trials against hospitalization and death.

Kellee Edwards: Okay. Well, thank you so much for clearing that up. Because I think at the very... This is what I was talking about, the very surface level. They hear about Pfizer and Moderna over 90%, and then the here, the one with Johnson, they're like 66% and they don't know where these numbers come from. So they just assume, Oh, well let me hurry up and get the Moderna or the Pfizer before they go run out. And all we're left with is the Johnson and Johnson. And that's because the information, it does need to be broken down in a simple way so that people can understand and not automatically associate that 66% with like, you said, a D.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yeah. Yeah.

Kellee Edwards: Is there anything that you would like to say to our listeners about where we are in the pandemic and where we need to go or watch out for?

Jessica Malaty Rivera: I want to make sure that folks understand that those of us in public health, don't delight in being the bearers of bad news and making it seem we're just naysayers. And we just want to have everybody have their plans ruined. We ourselves have had our joy and our grief deferred because of this pandemic. We've had so many things come up that have been deeply hurtful and hard because of this pandemic. So I want people to understand that I have tremendous amount of empathy for how challenging this has been. And I also want to thank people and encourage them that all of these sacrifices that people have made are not in vain.

That all of the things that they said no to, or later, or maybe next year to, those sacrifices have unfortunately invisible benefits. You don't see what you don't see. You don't see the loss and the issues, the sickness and the death that could have happened if you didn't make those sacrifices. And I just want people to know that this will not be like this forever. It's going to end, pandemics will end. This one will end. And all of these choices that we're making collectively are making a difference.

Kellee Edwards: Thank you so much, Jessica. That was such an encouraging way to close this discussion because we are all just, we're exhausted. We are overwhelmed, but we also believe in hope.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Yeah.

Kellee Edwards: And so thank you for providing that for our listeners.

Jessica Malaty Rivera: Of course.

Kellee: That's all for this episode of Let's Go Together, a podcast by Travel + Leisure. I'm your host, Kellee Edwards. You can follow our guest Jessica Malaty Rivera on Instagram at [Jessica Malaty Rivera] and on twitter at [Jessica Malaty]  Thanks to our production team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Danielle Roth, Lene Bech Sillisen, and Marvin Yueh [yu-eh]. This show was recorded in Los Angeles, edited in New York City, and can be found wherever you get your podcasts.  Thanks also to the team at Travel and Leisure, Deanne Kaczerski, Nina Ruggiero, and Tanner Saunders  You can find out more at travel and leisure dot com slash podcast. You can find Travel + Leisure IG @travelandleisure, on Twitter @travelleisure, on TikTik @travelandleisuremag, and you can find me at @kelleesetgo.