Well-known South Shore Health doctor weighs in on back-to-school mask conversation

Todd Ellerin, MD. Photo courtesy of South Shore Health.

August 18, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer

As Hingham Public Schools administrators and other staff prepare for the new school year in this every-changing COVID landscape, Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases at South Shore Health, emphasized that "the most important thing is to keep our kids in school."

In an interview with the Hingham Anchor, he shared his professional opinion that "irrespective of mandates and the current political climate, the best thing is to make sure that our teachers and kids are masked, whether vaccinated or not."
Ellerin noted that the Centers for Disease Control recently posted information stating that if students and teachers are masked, the risk of transmission and clusters from COVID variants "is extremely low."

Stating that indoor masking works, Ellerin points out, "Isn't this a small price to pay to keep kids in school? We can debate whether or not they should wear masks when more kids are vaccinated and the virus is on the decline, but now is not the right time."

Ellerin, who is also a respected ABC News medical contributor, graduated from Tufts University School of Medicine in 1998.

In addition to being director of infectious diseases and vice chairman of South Shore Health's department of medicine, Ellerin is an associate physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital and an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Ellerin has been the principal investigator of multiple clinical trials, including current COVID-19 randomized controlled trials to test novel anti-COVID therapeutics and is now leading his healthcare system in the fight against COVID-19.

"This pandemic is like nothing we've experienced before," he said. "One of the coronavirus' features is that it's very contagious. It can be transmitted before the symptoms occur, so it's not easy to detect [in the early stages]. Its spread is unpredictable."

The main goal, according to Ellerin, is not eradication. "It is controlling and suppressing [the virus] as much as possible. There are a lot more variants because it's [a] global [health issue]."

The Delta variant is twice as contagious as the original virus, he explained. "It can evade our immune defense fortified from prior infection or better yet from prior vaccination."

Ellerin emphasized, "The vaccines have all been excellent at preventing severe illnesses resulting from the Delta variant," which he said comprises an "overwhelming majority of cases in the United States today."

"Vaccines remain our best line of defense against getting severely ill," he said. "Delta can still be transmitted, but it's necessary to get the vaccination because most of the deaths and transmissions from COVID have been among unvaccinated people."

The best way to control the spread of this virus is for the unvaccinated -- including those who are immunocompromised (weak immune systems) -- to get vaccinated and for the unvaccinated to wear face masks indoors and also for the immunocompromised and the elderly to do the same, especially in poorly ventilated or crowded areas, whether vaccinated or not, according to Ellerin.

The bottom line in order to decrease COVID transmission, according to the CDC, "is for everyone to mask indoors during the surge," Ellerin further stated.

He first got interested in specializing in infectious disease after he had completed his first year of medical school at Tufts.

"I tried to get a job with a well-known immunologist, but no positions were available," Ellerin recalled. "Coincidentally he pointed me to a position posted by an infectious disease doctor for a Lyme vaccine research coordinator, and I got the job."

That doctor introduced him to infectious disease fellows and motivated him to participate in infectious disease conferences where "mystery cases" were presented. "I fell in love with it," Ellerin remembers.

After heading for San Francisco General Hospital to learn about HIV, he realized how much he loved "helping immunocompromised and vulnerable patients."

In his role as an infectious disease specialist, Ellerin shared additional information.

While there has been some confusion around whether those who have had COVID-19 should be vaccinated, Ellerin set the record straight. "If you've had COVID, don't get vaccinated right away. The infection stimulates the immune system, although not in as robust a way as the vaccine does, and if you get vaccinated right away, there could be more severe side effects. I'd advise waiting 90 days."

In his experience, the vaccine has "overwhelmingly" helped save lives. "Deaths from COVID are three to five times fewer now than when the same amount of people were infected in early February because of the vaccine," he said. "Also, treatments for COVID are improving."

The key message Ellerin would like to convey is the importance of learning from past mistakes -- such as "waiting too long [at the beginning of the pandemic] to enact masking guidelines and delayed COVID testing" -- and then to not repeat them.

"We shouldn't allow politics to corrupt an effective health response. Getting a vaccination does not make you less conservative," he said. "We have enough evidence right now to know with certainty that this is a safe vaccine. We don't need to wait years to find that out."

Of highest priority right now, in Ellerin's opinion, is for the unvaccinated around the world to get vaccinated. "The booster shot is more like the icing on the cake except for the immunocompromised and the elderly, who could benefit from one."

All things considered, it's important for everyone to join together -- after the fashion of what Ellerin called the "super cool" ancient Japanese kintsugi art form that embraces imperfection -- "and work more collaboratively and have a bit more humility and less hubris. That would take us a long way."

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