Why Getting Vaccinated Doesn't Mean You Should Take Off the Mask — Yet

By Helen LinLast Updated Jan 29, 2021 7:48:09 PM ET
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We've been living with COVID-19 precautions like mask-wearing and social distancing for nearly a year. Now, at last, like a ray of sunlight at the end of a dark tunnel, COVID-19 vaccinations are available to healthcare and essential workers and other at-risk populations. And, later this year, even the general public will have the ability to get vaccinated.

So, once you get your vaccine, can you finally ditch your mask, grab a table at your favorite restaurant and hug your best friend? Probably not, say experts. Although the current COVID-19 vaccines boast high efficacy rates, they’re not foolproof. In fact, the main aim is to vaccinate enough people to reach herd immunity status, thus reducing the strain on our healthcare systems and lowering the risk of transmission. Believe it or not, even if you’ve received your vaccines doses, one of the best ways to keep yourself and others safe is to keep that mask on — and practice social distancing.

Individuals May Be “Silent Spreaders”

When individuals receive their dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, they know their possibility of contracting a serious infection goes down — way down. However, scientists don't yet know if that means they're not getting it at all, or if they are getting it with easily dismissable, so-called "silent symptoms." Given how eager we all are for life to regain some sense of normalcy, hearing that masks are a must even after being immunized can be a let down.

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Still, it’s essential to understand a bit about why this is the case, and why vaccinated folks might still spread COVID-19 to others. Put simply, when the vaccine is injected into your muscle, that's where the virus-fighting antibodies first take root. Scientists believe that, on occasion, the virus may happen to bloom somewhere else, such as someone's nasal cavity, and the antibody isn't yet there to fight it because it is still working against a COVID-19 occurrence deeper in said person's body. In those cases, an individual may be able to expel droplets containing virus, thus infecting those around them. With this in mind, mask-wearing, social distancing, avoiding folks outside of your household and staying in well-ventilated spaces continue to be effective ways to slow (or stop) the spread.

How Long Immunity Lasts Is Unclear

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have high efficacy rates, coming in at 95% and 94.5% respectively after both doses are received. While it’s clear that the vaccines are effective, what’s not clear is how long they’ll maintain this level of protection. In fact, this uncertainty surrounding how long a person’s immunity lasts is the same reason that you should get vaccinated even if you’ve already had COVID-19.

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A lack of everlasting immunity is pretty par-for-the-course when it comes to how immunizations work, which is precisely why you’re urged to get a flu shot every year and why you need boosters for vaccines that were first administered during childhood. "Both natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity are important aspects of COVID-19 that experts are trying to learn more about," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated. "And [we] will keep the public informed as new evidence becomes available."

Additionally, scientists are still monitoring how approved vaccines respond to the COVID-19 variants that have begun cropping up in the United Kingdom, South Africa and elsewhere. So far, Moderna’s experts have stated that they believe the vaccines will be effective in fighting off these variants — although how effective, and for how long, remains to be seen. With this in mind, the company is researching how future boosters might help target these new strains.

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Different Responses & Different Rollout Stages

The differences between us as individuals, biologically speaking, may also impact how we respond to the COVID-19 vaccine. For example, older folks are more likely to suffer from severe, life-threatening cases of COVID-19, partially due to their age. Similarly, older immune systems make it more difficult for a vaccine to do its job.

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At the same time, people have been floating largely inaccurate information about how the vaccine may work with different body types. One myth, in particular, says that larger bodies will need more of the vaccine to develop immunity, just as they may need a larger dose of ibuprofen to curb a headache. After all, vaccines develop antibodies — they don’t act the same as a pain-relieving drug in a patient’s bloodstream.

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Additionally, the way the vaccine is being rolled out plays into all of this. Both vaccines require two rounds of shots, so, if you’ve only had the first round, the vaccine won’t be as effective in protecting you. Even if you’ve personally completed that two-dose regimen, folks around you might not yet be eligible for even the first round yet. To keep them safe, continue to wear your mask and practice social distancing.

Keep That “In an Abundance of Caution” Mindset

Sure, it can be a pain to have a mask on you at all times. Moreover, it can be difficult to isolate yourself from friends and family. But it’s important that we all hang in there. After all, as unprecedented as the whole pandemic is, researchers have also made an unprecedented amount of progress in researching COVID-19 and developing highly effective vaccinations in under a year.

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As NPR points out, "studies of the new vaccines only measured whether vaccinated people developed symptoms, not whether they got infected. It's possible that they got light infections — not enough to make them ill, but enough to pass the virus on to others." That is, experts need to learn more about what benefits immunity provides before folks "return to normal." And while the availability of COVID-19 vaccines hasn’t exactly heralded the end of this public health crisis, it has brought us a giant leap closer to a safer future.