With the COVID-19 vaccine in wide circulation, many people are wondering one thing: Will life return to normal soon? The truth is that, while vaccines are certainly turning the tide in our fight with this virus, we still need to continue wearing face masks for a while longer in crowded, indoor environments.
"Unfortunately, getting vaccinated does not instantly mean we can go back to how life was before," says infectious disease specialist Kristin Englund, MD. "Until we have some level of herd immunity, the vaccine is now just another layer of protection against COVID-19. Face masks and physical distancing will need to continue into the foreseeable future. The vaccines are certainly a step in the right direction – and a reason to celebrate – but we’re not out of the woods yet."
50% to 80% of the U.S. population must be completely vaccinated for us to achieve herd immunity. While we've made great strides toward these target numbers, we'll need to ramp up vaccine production and distribution to reach them.
On the bright side, the CDC says that people who are fully vaccinated can gather indoors with others who are also fully vaccinated without needing face masks. But when out in public spaces, they should still wear face masks and practice social distancing. Let's cover five reasons why you should continue wearing a face mask in these settings.
1. The Vaccine Takes Time to Start Working
For the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, you only reach 95% effectiveness two weeks after your second dose. The first dose does give you a partial immune response, but you don't immediately gain protection the second you receive the injection. Similarly, you're only fully vaccinated two weeks after getting the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
2. COVID-19 Vaccines Don't Give 100% Protection
The COVID-19 vaccines are a testament to humanity's scientific and medical innovation. It's incredible that researchers were able to develop something that offers 94% to 95% protection against the coronavirus in such a short amount of time. That said, the vaccines are not 100% effective.
We have no way to predict or tell who the 5% or 6% of people will be that don't respond to the vaccine and thus are still susceptible to being infected by COVID-19. To put this in perspective, the measles vaccine offers 97% effectiveness after two doses. The measles itself did not get completely eliminated until 2000, 37 years after the vaccine debuted.
3. You Could Still Be an Asymptomatic Spreader
We know that the vaccines prevent illness. But do they prevent transmission? Health experts are worried that those who have been vaccinated can still become infected without symptoms. This means that they could potentially still spread COVID-19 to others who haven't received their vaccines yet.
Asymptomatic spreaders have been a concern since the pandemic started. It's not out of the question that vaccinated people who don't keep wearing coronavirus protection like face masks could keep the virus circulating. While receiving the vaccine means you're much less prone to developing COVID-19 symptoms yourself, it's imperative that we protect others as they wait to get the shot as well.
4. We Must Protect Those Who Can't Be Vaccinated
People with compromised immune systems and chronic health conditions like heart disease carry a higher risk of developing a severe COVID-19 infection. This population was not involved in clinical vaccine trials, so we can't simply assume the vaccines will have the same level of effect on them.
Besides this, experts also warn that you shouldn't get the vaccine if you've had an allergic reaction to any ingredients in it. And if you experience allergic symptoms to the first vaccine dose, the CDC recommends eschewing the second dose. Pregnant women are also considered high risk and are either opting out of the vaccine or choosing to receive it after they give birth.
Simply put, there are still a lot of high-risk individuals out there who can't receive the COVID-19 vaccine. We must do our part to protect them by social distancing and wearing face masks in any areas we could come into contact with them.
5. Vaccine Doses Are Limited
As previously noted, we've made some monumental strides in vaccine production and distribution. But we still have a long way to go before 50% to 80% of the population is vaccinated. And only then can we achieve herd immunity. U.S. health experts believe that reaching herd immunity may only happen at the end of 2021.
We're on the Right Track but Not at the Finish Line Yet
We all wish that the vaccines meant life would return to normal instantly. But they don't. Still, there is a light at the end of the tunnel – we're definitely on the right track, especially compared to a year ago.
Until things become safer for all of us, we should continue to wear face masks, wash our hands, and social distance, even if we've received full vaccination. Guidelines may change after a certain threshold of people receive their vaccines and new COVID-19 cases and deaths drop. But until the numbers reflect these changes, we must stay vigilant and do what we can to protect each other.
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