How Vaccine Mandates at Concerts Can Create False Sense of Security

Jason Isbell / Garth Brooks

Everyone in live music is attempting to navigate the choppy waters of the Delta variant surge of COVID-19 as best they can, with many artists, festivals, and venues choosing to adopt a model where patrons must show proof of vaccination to attend. Some also give the option of presenting a negative COVID test from the past 72 hours as an alternative to vaccination proof.

But along with the push back from some concerned with both civil rights and discrimination issues these mandates can pose, the amount of breakthrough cases for fully vaccinated individuals continues to swell (and be strangely under-reported by public health officials), and a new study from Oxford underscores the dangers of vaccinated carriers of the disease, making it important to question if vaccine mandates truly are the best path forward as positive cases continue to push near record levels, and local hospitals are pushed to capacity.

Some promoters and artists are presenting vaccine mandates as a panacea to pandemic concerns for mass gatherings when the developing science surrounding the Delta variant and waning vaccine efficacy just doesn’t validate this opinion.

Based on more than three million test subjects who received nose and throat swabs, the Oxford University study released on August 19th found that 90 days after a second shot of the Pfizer or Astrazeneca vaccines, their efficacy in preventing infections had slipped to 75% and 61%, down from 85% and 68% two weeks after the second dose. The decline in efficacy was more pronounced among those aged 35 years and older than those below that age.

But perhaps most troubling to the effectiveness of vaccine mandates is what the study says about the viral load of the COVID-19 pathogen that many of the subjects who experienced breakthrough cases registered. The Oxford study showed that those who get infected despite vaccination tend to have the same viral load as unvaccinated individuals. Though vaccinated people tend to have better health outcomes—meaning significant less likelihood of developing severe disease resulting in hospitalization or death—they can still spread the disease due to the viral load their body contains.

In fact, due to the increased likelihood of vaccinated individuals experiencing a breakthrough case not experiencing symptoms themselves, they can be more likely to spread COVID-19 to more vulnerable populations, such as children under 12 who are not eligible for vaccines, the elderly, immune compromised, individuals with pre-existing conditions, or individuals who can’t receive the vaccine due to health restrictions.

Meanwhile, proven safe practice procedures adopted during the pandemic such as holding events outside instead of inside, along with social distancing, are at times being completely ignored or even overruled for packed indoor events with vaccine mandates.

For example, when Americana artist Jason Isbell instituted a vaccine mandate for his current tour, he cancelled a show at Houston’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavillion that could not implement the mandate in time for the show, even though the show was outside, and had only sold 1,700 tickets to a venue with a capacity of 16,500 that could have instituted socially-distanced seating for the event. Isbell also moved a show in Fort Worth at the Panther Island Pavilion that can expand to as much as a 60,000 capacity to the indoor Billy Bob’s Texas where patrons were packed in.

On August 18th, Garth Brooks canceled five announces dates on his current stadium tour due to concerns over the Delta variant. Then Garth Brooks announced this week he would be replacing the stadium tour with a “dive bar” tour. “This fall, dive bars,” Garth Brooks. “Because you can fully vaccinate dive bars. People have got to have their card to even get in … I’m vaccinated, 100% vaccinated. Everybody on the freakin’ tour, vaccinated.”

But as we’ve seen with the recent Delta variant surge, breakthrough cases, specifically within the entertainer class, have caused the cancellation of many tours. And packing people into indoor venues—vaccinated or not—is potentially more likely to result in COVID-19 spread than outdoor venues.

In an Billboard interview with Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, who is a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security and an authority on infectious diseases and pandemic preparedness, she said,

There are increased risks of transmission when you move things from the outdoors to the indoors because people can’t naturally socially distance, the ventilation will not be the same. There’s no sunlight, humidity — all those things are not necessarily going to be replicated in an indoor setting. People are going to have to learn to make risk calculations. For some people that risk might be they don’t go to indoor concerts. For other people, they do go to indoor concerts depending on their individual risk tolerance. The best way to make those venues safe is to have as many people vaccinated as possible.

While many are praising Garth Brooks, Jason Isbell, and others for implementing vaccine mandates at concerts and moving to smaller venues, nobody is discussing the indoor vs. outdoor dynamic, and how COVID-19 spread is mitigated in outdoor settings.

Since opinions on this issue can vary, conducted a study of 27 heath experts, asking them which activities they would and would not participate in during the pandemic, considering a population of both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. While attending indoor events ranked high among the activities most of the health experts said they would not do, “Attend a large outdoor concert or sporting event” was one of the the things they were most likely to do.

Though much more research on the Delta variant needs to be done, it’s at least worth debating whether a large outdoor festival or concert is more safe than a smaller, indoor music event, vaccine mandate or not. According to the 27 health experts queried by Stat News, they believe the outdoor option is better.

chart via StatNews

None of this is to discourage vaccination against COVID-19. Getting a vaccine is still considered by health experts to be the best way to safeguard the individual from severe illness. But it’s clear that the efficacy of vaccine mandates for musical events is at least debatable, along with the underlying issues of fake vaccination cards, those who are unable to get the vaccine, and the slippery slope of when such mandates will be lifted, and what to do about booster shots. The only real way to ensure an event does not have any active COVID-19 cases among attendees would be testing, not vaccination records.

None of this is to advocate for the cancellation of indoor music events either. Venues and festivals are hurting after a prolonged period of not being able to hold events at all. But as the rush to implement vaccine mandates in public spaces continues, little or no discussion is being had if the practice could be creating a false sense of security, and ironically, help to spread COVID-19 and the Delta variant as opposed to slowing it down.

Ultimately, with vaccines now available to everyone aside from children under 12 (who few are talking about getting locked out of music events since they’re not eligible for vaccines), there is an assumed risk everyone takes by choosing to get a vaccine, or choosing not to. With the Delta variant, herd immunity is now a myth. Giving the public the best information to keep themselves safe should be a priority. Mandating the public follow certain rules that may only create the specter of safety while possibly exacerbating the spread of COVID-19 should be rigorously discussed.

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Editor’s Note: Comments from Dr. Robert W. Malone were removed from this article to eliminate any potential controversy.

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