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Masks still necessary after COVID-19 vaccinations until we reach herd immunity

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Posted at 2:06 PM, Feb 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-03 14:15:45-05

Now that COVID-19 vaccinations are well underway, many Americans are looking forward to getting back to life before the pandemic. However, health care workers say masks and social distancing will still be necessary for quite some time.

Mackenzie White has been working on the COVID-19 floor since March of last year. She's a nurse aid and EMT. She says she feels relieved to be vaccinated. She got her first dose of the vaccine in mid-December and the second in early January.

“The second one is supposed to evoke like a more intense immune-response so I did definitely have some fatigue and generalized body aches," White said. "But I wouldn’t say it was any worse than the flu shot and it lasted maybe 24 hours."

Even though the vaccine has brought relief to millions of people in the U.S., it doesn’t mean those who are immunized can suddenly stop wearing masks and social distancing.

“This is a virus that is incredibly good at spreading between humans,” Dr. Chris Beyrer said.

Dr. Chris Beyrer is a Desmond Tutu professor of public health and human rights at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He says it may still be possible to spread COVID-19 even after getting the vaccine.

“These are vaccines that prevent against severe and mild COVID-19 disease, so the jury is still out about whether or not after you’ve been immunized, you could still acquire COVID-19 and you could still transmit it. We don’t know that yet.”

In other words, if you get the vaccine, you’d be protected from getting extremely ill. However, epidemiologists say it may still be possible for a vaccinated person to catch the virus and spread it to someone else who hasn’t been vaccinated – even if you never show symptoms. The key is reaching herd immunity.

“Dr. Fauci is on the record of saying this that we’re going to need about 80% of a population immunized in order to really have the vaccine really block and protect the remaining 20% of people,” Dr. Beyrer said.

According to the current timeline, Dr. Beyrer says the vaccine won’t reach all adults who want it until summer.

“And we still have to do the research in children," Dr. Beyrer said. "Pfizer is for 18 and up and Moderna is 16 years and up.”

He says the latest concern is about the new variants of the virus that have popped up on three separate continents.

“We’re gonna need to use the basics of public health – mask wearing, social distancing – until we know that the Pfizer and Moderna products which is what we’re using in the U.S. – can protect against these new variants,” Dr. Beyrer said.

Although we can’t enjoy the comfortability of a pre-pandemic lifestyle quite yet, White says there is an immediate benefit to getting the vaccine besides better protection for yourself.

“It does feel different," White said. "Being vaccinated feels different. I’m less afraid. I have less anxiety.”