As the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are rolled out around the world, many people are beginning to wonder one thing: Does this mean we won't have to wear face masks soon? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Getting a vaccine does not provide anyone with a free pass to ignore public health precautions. Wearing face mask protection, washing your hands, and practicing social distancing are all still imperative to protect our own lives and those around us.
Let's explore six reasons why all of these coronavirus safety efforts will still be necessary as the vaccine is rolled out. But first, let's briefly review the roles of face masks and vaccinations in this pandemic.
Vaccines = A False Sense of Security?
Coronavirus protection measures such as face masks, social distancing, and sanitizing frequently have been humanity's main methods to prevent transmission and infection of the deadly pandemic virus. Proper face mask protection alone can reduce an individual's chance of infection by as much as 70%. And with emergency use authorization of the COVID-19 vaccines, an opportunity has emerged to decrease the risk of catching this illness even more.
But the promise of vaccination may give people a false sense of personal security. Many social media users are already wondering if they'll no longer need to wear face masks once they receive the vaccine. Unfortunately, that couldn't be further from the truth.
In a nutshell, vaccines basically teach the human body how to fight off a virus without actually getting sick from it. On the other hand, public health measures like the one we've discussed depend on decreasing virus transmission and exposure. Both efforts are sorely needed to effectively mitigate and contain this pandemic.
Here are six reasons why you should continue to wear a face mask, wash your hands frequently, and social distance during and after your vaccination:
1. COVID-19 Vaccines Do Not Give Instant Immunity
The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines both require two doses that are administered weeks apart. Depending on which vaccine you receive, that means it can take between four to six weeks from the initial dosing to attain immunity similar to what clinical trial patients exhibited. During this time period, you can still contract COVID-19 and become severely ill.
2. Vaccine Trials Didn't Track Face Mask Wearing
The clinical trials to test the COVID-19 vaccines undoubtedly had strict enrollment and monitoring criteria. But here's one thing that's not clear: Were study participants provided with guidance on face mask usage? With a lack of data on this aspect, it's not crystal-clear whether vaccine effectiveness was affected by adherence to public health measures such as wearing a face mask.
3. The Real World Isn't a Controlled Clinical Trial
The COVID-19 clinical vaccine trials focused on healthy individuals. If any of them had preexisting diseases, they were vetted to ensure that these conditions were stable. This is a stark contrast to real-world conditions.
As mass vaccination efforts roll out, operational logistics and each individual's unique medical conditions could affect their immunity levels. Various factors such as transportation, storage, administration, and a patient's health will end up determining real-world vaccine efficacy.
4. COVID-19's Herd Immunity Threshold Isn't Known
Herd immunity has been hogging headlines since the COVID-19 pandemic began. It happens when a specific portion of a population is exposed to the virus. This typically occurs through vaccination, and it restricts the virus's ability to spread.
Per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19's herd immunity threshold has not been elucidated yet. Each disease requires a different percentage of the population to be immune to achieve herd immunity. For instance, 95% of the population must be vaccinated to stop the spread of measles.
5. Vaccine Immunity Duration Is Unknown
The duration of vaccine efficacy has not been determined yet. It will be monitored as more widespread vaccinations are implemented. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needs a median two months of data after the emergency use authorization vaccination regimen is completed.
On the bright side, our immune system does contain memory cells. These are what allow our bodies to identify infections and mount a defensive response against illnesses. For certain patients infected with COVID-19, these memory cells have remembered the virus even six months after they became ill.
6. It's Not Clear If Vaccines Stop COVID-19 Transmission
Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna did not track asymptomatic COVID-19 infections in their clinical vaccine trials. Essentially, this means that the ability of these vaccines to prevent transmission of the virus was never evaluated or confirmed.
Future studies will be required to find out whether COVID-19 vaccinations decrease viral transmission. Only then can we also re-evaluate the role of face masks, hand washing, and social distancing.
Public Health Measures Protect Us All
With almost 2 million lives lost to the coronavirus and many countries implementing new lockdowns, it's clear that this global pandemic is still spreading around the world. On a positive note, the scientific community has achieved an unprecedented milestone: Vaccines with efficacy rates of over 94% were developed, tested, and deployed in only 10 months.
While we're not at the finish line yet, the end is in sight. But continued cooperation is sorely needed to get there. Thus, it's imperative that any of us who is eligible gets vaccinated. It's also important that we continue to wear face mask protection, social distance, and wash our hands frequently.
Until we completely comprehend this virus and the vaccines' effect on it, we must all do our part to follow public health measures. They protect not only us but our loved ones as well.
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