Skip to main content

COVID questions: gyms, placebos, vaccine proof

September 17, 2020 By Kristina LeVan

Editor’s note: We will be publishing answers to questions about COVID-19 and the pandemic each week in this COVID questions column. If you have a question, please email it to

Q: Are public gyms spreading COVID-19? What are the risk factors for returning to my gym when we’re no longer able to work out outside (due to cold temperatures and snow)?

A: Indeed, case clusters over the summer have been linked to gyms in Dane County. In the winter, when most of our activities will take place indoors, COVID-19 transmission is expected to increase. Gyms, in particular, have the potential to be significant sources of indoor spread for COVID-19 during the upcoming winter months.

The virus is more easily spread in an indoor environment, especially when there are not opened windows and when air is moist, warm, stagnant and not filtered rapidly enough. While sweat does not transmit the virus, heavier breathing following exercise by anyone unknowingly infected poses a risk for those nearby. Fitness classes are problematic because aerosolized droplets can linger in the air for up to three hours. There are also countless shared surfaces in gyms, and proper cleaning in between each person coming in contact with those high-touch areas is a formidable task. Generous physical distancing is a must, but confined spaces can make that challenging. Moreover, concentrating on your workout can lead to lapses in judgement, while constant mindfulness of your surroundings makes it harder to enjoy fully your workout.

Not all gym environments are the same. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) has guidelines for owners and staff to operate gyms safely. It’s worth a read and gives you an idea of what you should expect for your personal safety, including temperature checks of all patrons at entry, enforcing mask use, limiting capacity, enhanced cleaning protocols, among many other safeguards. These guidelines help but do not eliminate the risk of COVID-19 transmission in gyms. This new coronavirus is very infectious; even in healthcare environments, where personal protective equipment is used extensively and infection control protocols are in place, the CDC found that an average of 120 patients a day became infected in U.S. hospitals during the spring and summer months of 2020 (Wall Street Journal, 9/15/20).

Finally, the level of community spread matters, too. If the anticipated second wave indeed hit us this winter, it will be imperative that we all do our part to not fuel the spread of COVID-19. If possible, working out at home instead of going to the gym and investing in cold weather gear to extend your outdoor exercise season a little longer will be safer options for you and the community.

– Ajay Sethi, Associate Professor, Population Health Sciences; Faculty Director, Master of Public Health Program

Q: If you participate in a vaccine study and are given the placebo (or even the real vaccine), once a vaccine is approved on the market, can you get the vaccine? If not, and are given the placebo, you are vulnerable for the duration of the study, which I believe is two years.

A: Yes. People who get the placebo [during a vaccine study] are contacted if a vaccine gets approved so they can get the approved vaccine.

– Nasia Safdar,  professor, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Medical Director of Infection Control at UW Hospital and Clinics  

Q: When a person is vaccinated, how will they show proof where it might be required? Will they need to wear a mask? If a person gets one of the first approved vaccines and later vaccines prove more effective, can a person also get one of the later vaccines?

A: In Wisconsin, all immunizations will be logged into the Wisconsin Immunization Registry.  Anyone has access to their own data within WIR.

No vaccine provides 100% protection. If SARS-CoV-2 continues to be in circulation — and this is likely for months after a vaccine is available, especially if a number of people avoid the vaccine — use of masking will still be advisable.

There is no information on safety or effectiveness of use of a different vaccine type after an initial course of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.

– Jonathan Temte, professor, family medicine, University of Wisconsin–Madison

See more answers to COVID questions at Also, visit our COVID-19 impact site.