For many of us, a COVID-19 vaccine feels like a light at the end of the tunnel – the way to move on with our lives after a pandemic that has taken so much from so many.
So what changes after you’ve received your COVID-19 vaccination? After a year of physical distancing and heightened hygiene, can we safely host a dinner party? Hug our grandparents? Leave our masks at home?
The answer, cautiously, is not until we know more about how these vaccines work in the real world.
“I think we need to wait for the data on whether or not the vaccine protects you from carrying the virus and transmitting it to another person. The science and the information evolves over time, and getting that answer will be critical to know what’s next,” said Stephen Hippler, MD, chief clinical officer of OSF HealthCare.
Vaccination and transmission
The vaccines authorized for use in the United States are certainly reason for optimism. They have been shown to be extremely effective at preventing the recipient from getting sick with COVID-19.
We know these vaccines are extremely effective at preventing illness – meaning a person who receives a vaccination is very unlikely to get sick or develop any severe symptoms if they are exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19.
But vaccines – even those that are extremely effective, like the ones being used in the United States have proven to be – aren’t a magic bullet in the face of such a large public health issue.
What we don’t know for certain, is whether a vaccinated person could still carry the virus and pass it on to someone else.
“We don’t have any proof yet that the vaccine will prevent you from harboring the virus in your nose, mouth, throat and lungs – and not being sick – but then being able to pass it on to someone else. I suspect there will be research done on this and we will know one way or another in the future. But for now, it really is safer and better and smarter, even if you are vaccinated, to really be careful and protect others around you by wearing a mask,” Dr. Hippler said.
As more people get vaccinated, researchers will have the opportunity to observe any changes to the rate of transmission to better understand whether vaccinated people continue to spread the disease.
Most vaccines prevent this type of “carrier” transmission, but not all of them.
“Even though it sounds logical and reasonable that a vaccine should prevent you from being a carrier and passing it on, until we have proof, we should be safe and smart and continue to wear masks,” Dr. Hippler said.
Protecting our community
The recommendation to continue masking after vaccination calls back to a recurring theme throughout this pandemic: How do we do what’s best not just for the individual, but for our community?
“This whole pandemic has been about more than protecting ourselves. We should also be focusing on how do we protect others, how do we protect our society and how do we protect the most vulnerable? And really that’s where I see masks playing a critical role, is protecting those around us who may be more susceptible, whether we have had a vaccine or not,” Dr. Hippler said.
Vaccines will be a crucial tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19. But vaccinating enough people to reach herd immunity will take months. And in the meantime, more people get infected, are hospitalized and die each day from COVID-19.
While we can see the light at the end of that proverbial tunnel, we are still living in a pandemic that requires our continued vigilance.
“To really, truly get the outcome that we all want is going to take a majority of Americans getting the vaccine,” Dr. Hippler said.