As more and more people become fully vaccinated, many are wondering when life will return to normal. But before you ceremoniously throw away your face masks, experts warn that we’ll need to continue wearing them a while longer, especially in public settings.
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“Face masks and physical distancing will need to continue into the foreseeable future,” explains infectious disease specialist Kristin Englund, MD. “Unfortunately, getting vaccinated does not instantly mean we can go back to how life was before. Until we have some level of herd immunity, the vaccine is now just another layer of protection against COVID-19.”
For us to reach herd immunity, 50% to 80% of the population will need to be vaccinated. And since it will take time to ramp up production and distribution of the vaccines, Dr. Englund urges folks to manage their expectations about a quick return to normal.
There is, however, some good news for those who are already fully vaccinated, but there are stipulations. The CDC says fully vaccinated people can now safely gather indoors, in small gatherings with other people who are fully vaccinated – no mask required. But it’s important to note that fully vaccinated people should continue to wear face masks and maintain physical distance while in public spaces. Those who are fully vaccinated should also continue to avoid medium and large gatherings and those who are not vaccinated and considered high-risk.
“The vaccines are certainly a step in the right direction – and a reason to celebrate – but we’re not out of the woods yet,” she says.
5 reasons to still wear a face mask after you’ve been vaccinated
Here, Dr. Englund explains why it’s important for those who have already been vaccinated to continue wearing a mask:
It takes time for the vaccine to kick in
You won’t reach the nearly 95% effectiveness rate until two weeks after your second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. After the first dose, you do get a partial immune response, which is good news, but it doesn’t mean you’re immediately protected the minute the needle goes in your arm. For the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you’re considered fully vaccinated two weeks after your single dose.
The vaccines do not provide 100% protection
Although the vaccines are incredibly effective (and were nothing short of amazing in terms of turnaround), they only offer 94% to 95% protection. There’s no way to tell who the 5% will be who don’t respond to the vaccine and will still be at risk for COVID-19. In comparison, the measles vaccine is 97% effective after two doses. The vaccination program began in the U.S. in 1963, but the disease wasn’t considered eliminated until 2000!
Those who have been vaccinated might be asymptomatic spreaders
The vaccines prevent illness, but more research is needed to determine if the vaccines also prevent transmission. Experts are concerned that vaccinated people can still become infected without symptoms and then spread it to others who have not been vaccinated yet. Since the pandemic unfolded nearly a year ago, experts have worried about silent spreaders, aka those who are infected but don’t show symptoms. If vaccinated people don’t continue to wear a face mask until more people are considered fully vaccinated, they could cause the virus to keep circulating. Getting vaccinated means you’re much less likely to get sick and develop symptoms yourself, so it’s critical that we protect others while they wait for their turn to receive the vaccine.
Protecting those with compromised immune systems and those who can’t be vaccinated
We know that people with chronic medical conditions (like heart disease and cancer) are at risk for developing a severe case of COVID-19. And since this population wasn’t involved in clinical trials, we can’t assume that they’ll have the same effectiveness rate. It’s also recommended that if you’ve had an allergic reaction to any of the ingredients in the vaccine, you shouldn’t get it. If you had an allergic reaction to the first dose, the CDC doesn’t recommend getting the second dose either. Some pregnant people (who are also considered high risk and weren’t included in clinical trials) are opting out of getting vaccinated or choosing to be vaccinated after they give birth. If you’re fully vaccinated, it’s recommended to steer clear of those considered high-risk who are not vaccinated.
Protecting those that need a booster
While research is ongoing, certain people who received the Pfizer vaccine – those over 65 years of age, adults with underlying medical conditions and those working in high-risk environments – have been cleared to receive a booster shot of the vaccine. Currently, data suggests there might be some waning in the protection after a certain amount of time and the hope is to give the immune systems of eligible patients a boost to help protect against breakthrough cases.
How long should you wear a mask?
Early in the summer, as vaccines got wide distribution across the country, there was a time when many mask mandates were rolled back as COVID-19 cases dropped. But the country as a whole failed to hit the necessary vaccination rate to reach herd immunity and many regions saw vaccination rates well below even the national average. That allowed the virus to continue circulating and to mutate, leading to this summer’s delta variant spike which caused confusion with mask guidelines.
Since many people in the country still aren’t fully vaccinated and the risk of breakthrough cases remains, it’s best to keep wearing a mask, even after getting the vaccine, particularly in high-risk situations. Unfortunately, pandemics don’t come with an expiration date so this could stretch on longer than we’d hoped, even with the development of the vaccines. For now, continue to follow your local mask guidelines and, if necessary, continue to do what makes you feel safest.
The vaccine is not an automatic off switch for the pandemic
As much as we’d all like to hope that the vaccine means an instant return to normal – it’s not. But we are on the right track.
Instead, it’s now one tool in our kit of resources to fight the pandemic. We’ll need to continue universal masking when in public, hand washing, avoiding large crowds and keep physical distance when we’re around others who are not fully vaccinated.
“We may see mask guidelines start to change after enough people have been vaccinated and cases and deaths have dropped,” says Dr. Englund. “But until then, we must remain vigilant in our fight to control COVID-19.”