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3 Reasons You Still Need to Wear a Mask After Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine

Jan. 6, 2021 - Katie McCallum

After months of ordering takeout, canceling trips and socializing through the screens of your various devices, you're likely very excited by the newfound freedom that being vaccinated against COVID-19 will provide you.

Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple...

"The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are an enormous leap forward in a pandemic that has both changed and taken lives. And while these vaccines will help bring the finish line in sight, there's still more work to be done," says Dr. Ashley Drews, medical director of infection prevention and control at Houston Methodist. "This work includes continuing the preventive measures you've been practicing since last March for a few months longer — even if you're vaccinated."

These safety measures include:

We know, we know, we know — this isn't the news you may have wanted to hear. But, it may help to know why this is the case.

Dr. Drews is here to explain the three primary reasons you still need to take precautions after being vaccinated.

1. There's a time lag between being vaccinated and developing immunity

Every vaccine is different, but what we know about the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines is that acquiring their full protective effects takes some time.

"With the Pfizer vaccine, you'll need two doses — with the second dose coming three weeks after the first. After your second dose, it will take another week or so to become fully protected. It takes time for your body to develop the specific immune response needed to ward off COVID-19," explains Dr. Drews. "With the Moderna vaccine, it's a similar story. The only real difference is that you will need to wait four weeks between your first and second dose of the vaccine."

This time lag means you can't go straight from getting your first shot to happy hour at your favorite restaurant or bar expecting to be immediately immune to COVID-19.

The bottom line: Starting from the day you get your first shot, expect the entire immunity-building process to take at least four to six weeks.

2. Vaccinating the masses will take time

The COVID-19 vaccines have the power to stimulate immunity to the new coronavirus without a person ever actually being infected with it. But, getting COVID-19 under control is going to take more than just you and me getting vaccinated. It's going to take the whole herd. Or the majority of the herd, at the very least.

"Herd immunity is when a large enough portion of the population is immune to an infectious disease so that the disease can no longer spread effectively within the population," says Dr. Drews. "This is where vaccine-induced immunity becomes critical, since — as we've seen — relying on natural immunity is a very slow, very deadly alternative."

Experts estimate that, to achieve herd immunity, anywhere between 70% to 90% of the population will need to get vaccinated. In the U.S., that means at least 248 million people. This, of course, is going to take some time.

"Even the best-laid vaccination production and distribution plans can't make up for the fact that vaccinating the majority of the population is a tall order. Not only do sufficient doses of vaccine need to be produced, but these doses need to be distributed across the country and administered to people one by one," explains Dr. Drews. "Further complicating matters is that fact that many people are skeptical about these new vaccines, and misinformation is adding to this fear."

The bottom line: Vaccinating at least 70% of the population is going to take a while — several months, in reality. Until the majority of the population is vaccinated, keeping everyone within our communities safe means continuing to wear a mask, practicing social distancing and avoiding crowds.

3. You may still be able to spread COVID-19 after being vaccinated

The primary goal of any vaccine is to prevent illness and death. The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are remarkably good at this — each being more than 90% effective at reducing severe illness. And with the death toll in the U.S. rising above 300,000 people in just 10 months, the effectiveness of these vaccines is very welcome news.

But, preventing illness is not the same as preventing infection.

"These vaccines are effective in the most important way we need them to be right now — they significantly reduce a person's risk of becoming severely ill as a result of COVID-19. What we don't yet fully understand is how effective these vaccines are at preventing you from becoming infected in the first place," explains Dr. Drews. "This isn't to say the vaccine doesn't also prevent infection. We just don't know for certain whether this is the case or not."

This means that, even though you're vaccinated, the possibility remains that you could get infected and spread the virus to someone else — and, if you're not being safe, that someone could be a person who is both unvaccinated and at high risk for severe disease.

The bottom line: For the time being and until we know more, operate under the assumption that, even though you're vaccinated, you could potentially be infected but asymptomatic.

A final word on the importance of getting the COVID-19 vaccine

Before you leave — we need to address the elephant in the room. While the vaccine can't deliver the one thing so many of us are so desperate for — an immediate return to normalcy — we cannot use this as an excuse to not get vaccinated.

"Once the vaccine is made available to you, I urge you to get vaccinated — even if you're not high risk. There's still much we don't know about this virus, but we have seen even young, seemingly healthy people experience severe illness or develop symptoms that linger well beyond being sick," says Dr. Drews. "To get this virus under control and to protect our communities, we need as many people vaccinated as possible."

Given this — as well as what we know about how easily this virus spreads and how deadly this virus can be — now is the time to come together as a community to embrace these new vaccines and recommit to the preventive measures that can keep our communities safe until we reach herd immunity.

"While I'm sure we all wish a vaccine could bring us over the finish line right away, remind yourself that, without a vaccine, the finish line wouldn't even be visible," adds Dr. Drews. "In addition, it takes more than just the existence of a vaccine to get across the finish line. If 'the herd' doesn't get vaccinated, nothing changes."

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