As COVID-19 vaccinations continue to roll out in the U.S., experts say the speedy development of an “incredibly effective” vaccine is nothing short of amazing—and it’s the first major step in ending the coronavirus pandemic.
But as healthcare workers, government employees, and residents of long-term care facilities receive the first doses, Americans have raised many questions about the vaccines’ distribution plan, possible side effects, storage challenges, and more.
Another big question: Do you have to wear a face mask after you get vaccinated?
Anthony Fauci, M.D., the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, told CNN in November that “it’s not going to be a light switch” back to pre-pandemic days. “I would recommend to people to not abandon all public health measures just because you have been vaccinated,” he said. This includes wearing a face mask, social distancing, staying out of large crowds, and washing your hands thoroughly and frequently.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also states on its website that “the combination of getting vaccinated and following recommendations to protect yourself and others will offer the best protection from COVID-19”—at least until the country has a grip on positive cases and hospitalizations.
Here’s why wearing a face mask will still be crucial as vaccinations continue into 2021, according to doctors.
Like other vaccines, the COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t provide 100% protection, even though it is effective.
While data released from Pfizer and Moderna—which have both been granted FDA Emergency Use Authorization for their respective vaccines—show that the vaccines are more than 90% effective, they don’t provide 100% protection from COVID-19.
Pfizer shared in early November that its two-dose vaccine was more than 90% effective in keeping 43,538 people in phase 3 clinical trials safe from COVID-19 infection. According to data from Moderna’s clinical trial, known as the COVE study, the company’s vaccine was 94.5% effective at preventing COVID-19 infection in those who received two doses, with more than 30,000 people in the U.S. enrolled in the trial.
But even with the slim chance of mild illness, “the vaccine will likely make COVID-19 infections less severe” should you get sick, says Richard Watkins, M.D., infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.
It’s also rare for any vaccine to have 100% efficacy. The measles, mumps, and rubella virus vaccine (MMR vaccine), for example, is 97% effective at preventing measles, but it’s still considered highly effective. In fact, measles was declared “eliminated” from the U.S. in 2000, meaning it was absent of continuous transmission for more than a year, per the CDC. (Recent outbreaks were among groups of people who were not vaccinated.)
The COVID-19 vaccines are considered highly effective, but until the pandemic is under control and public health officials have enough research to say otherwise, you’ll still need to wear masks in public spaces to help reduce the spread of the virus and its impact on our healthcare system, Dr. Watkins says.
Right now, there are only so many doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Pfizer says that it should be able to make up to 1.3 billion doses of its vaccine in 2021, while Moderna has confirmed it can produce 500 million to 1 billion doses globally this year.
Since each person needs to get two doses of these vaccines, the number of people who can actually be vaccinated is about half that number, points out Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York.
Gallery: Warning Signs You Have COVID Now, According to Dr. Fauci (ETNT Health)
Currently, there are more than 330 million people living in the U.S., so it’s going to take some time—experts estimate through fall 2021—to get enough people vaccinated to make enough of an impact on the spread of the virus. That is, provided enough people actually get the vaccine.
© Hearst Owned
Prevention Premium button
“People who have been vaccinated will be recommended to wear masks until at least the public health emergency is somewhat behind us,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. That means both case counts and deaths will have to decrease significantly; space will also have to increase in intensive case units. “The general public is not going to have access to this vaccine until the summer of 2021. There are still a lot of people who can get infected and die [in the meantime],” Dr. Adalja says.
To date, nearly 350,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, according to CDC data. That number is expected to increase through at least the winter and until more people are vaccinated, Dr. Adalja says.
It also takes time for the vaccine to kick in.
Each vaccine requires two shots, spaced several weeks apart. (Pfizer’s vaccine is given three weeks apart; Moderna’s vaccine is given 28 days apart.)
“For maximum protection, you need to get both shots,” Dr. Russo says. The first shot helps your body recognize the virus and primes your immune system for it, he explains. The second shot makes that immune response stronger.
“Protection from a vaccine doesn’t happen instantly,” Dr. Russo says. In general, you can expect to reach the ideal level of immunity five to six weeks after your first shot, provided you receive both injections.
Asymptomatic COVID-19 spread is still a huge issue.
Research suggests that approximately up to 50% of COVID-19 transmission is due to people who are infected but have no symptoms of the virus.
Detailed data has not been released yet on whether the vaccines offer what’s known as sterilizing immunity, in which those who are vaccinated can’t contract or pass on the virus at all. Until more research is done, there’s a possibility that people who are vaccinated can still become infected without symptoms and spread the coronavirus to those who have net yet received the vaccine.
That’s important to keep in mind, Dr. Russo says. “If you could possibly be infectious to others, it’s prudent for people to wear masks so they don’t serve as a vector,” he says.
Bottom line: You will need to wear a face mask after you’re vaccinated until COVID-19 cases become nearly nonexistent.
There are several things doctors don’t know yet about what levels of protection the COVID-19 vaccine provides. More data will be available as vaccines continue to be distributed.
“We may see mask guidance change after enough people have been vaccinated and this is no longer a public health issue,” Dr. Adalja says.
Even then, Dr. Russo expects that masks may surface during next winter, when cold and flu season ramps up, since research has shown face coverings can help block droplets that transmit respiratory viruses, including those that cause the common cold and flu. “Many people may want to wear masks then,” he says, because “we still don’t know for sure whether we’ll be able to fully eliminate COVID-19.”
Go here to join Prevention Premium (our best value, all-access plan), subscribe to the magazine, or get digital-only access.
FOLLOW PREVENTION ON INSTAGRAM
Try 200+ at home workout videos from Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Prevention, and more on All Out Studio free for 14 days!