On December 14, 2020, the first Americans received the COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine’s arrival seems serendipitous—much of the world is facing a huge uptick in coronavirus cases, and the UK is even experiencing a new, seemingly more contagious strain of the virus.
But as the vaccine begins to roll out across the globe, we’re also faced with many questions:
- Has it been tested thoroughly enough that we can trust it? Do we understand the long-term effects?
- Is the COVID-19 vaccine our savior, or merely a bandaid?
As more and more Americans gain access to the vaccine, here’s how and why it matters, and most importantly—why it’s not time to get rid of the face mask.
Herd Immunity Takes Time
The goal of the COVID-19 vaccine is to provide what’s called herd immunity. The vaccine works to help your body build antigens and eventually immunity to the coronavirus. As more and more people receive the vaccine, we are able to reduce the spread of the virus.
Herd immunity, however, takes time to achieve. For example, with diseases such as the measles, stopping the spread of the disease requires that 95% of the population be vaccinated. With COVID-19, it is believed herd immunity can be achieved with 70% of the US population receiving the vaccine.
So why do we still need masks if the vaccine is already on its way around the country? Creating and issuing that number of vaccines takes time, and it could be the summer before we reach herd immunity. Also, the vaccine is not 100% effective. The best protection we currently have is the face mask and avoiding large gatherings.
Even those who receive a vaccine are encouraged to wear a mask to protect themselves and others as we continue to study and learn more about the vaccine and the virus.
One of the concerns over the COVID-19 vaccine is how well it was tested on people of different races, ethnicities, and ages. People of color have been hardest hit by the coronavirus, and a history of poor treatment in healthcare has led to genuine concerns about the vaccine.
Approximately 10% of the 30,000 people who participated in the Moderna study are Black. While efforts to expand representation in these studies are underway, there is still a lot to be learned about how the vaccines will impact people of color.
The best answer to these questions is time. We need more time to study the outcomes and effects on every citizen. And as we wait for those results, it’s important to keep our masks on and keep each other safe.
We Still Have A Lot to Learn
If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that this virus is unpredictable. In fact, immunity for those who have already experienced the virus is still unknown. The World Health Organization is still researching how long immunity lasts after an individual has the virus.
The same question is raised with regard to the vaccine. It is still unknown how long the vaccine has an effect. Different vaccines respond differently, so while some are given only once or twice over a lifetime, others, like the flu vaccine, need to be issued every year.
Because the COVID-19 vaccine is brand new, the long-term effect is still unknown. It is also unclear whether or not a vaccinated person can still carry the virus and transmit it to others. Neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine trials tested whether the vaccine prevents people from being infected with the virus. Instead, the trials examine whether individuals are protected from developing COVID-19 symptoms. It is unknown if a vaccinated person can still asymptomatically carry the virus and spread it to others. In both the Moderna and Pfizer trials, some members of the study got sick even after receiving the vaccine, but not as sick as those in the placebo group (1 vaccinated person became extremely ill compared to 9 placeboes in the Pfizer study and zero vaccinated to 30 placeboes in the Moderna study). Because of these findings, the CDC and other healthcare institutions agree that until more is known about the vaccine, wearing masks and practicing physical distancing are the best ways to protect one another from the virus.
It’s Not Time to Hang Up the Mask
While our healthcare community is making incredible strides in finding ways to protect us from COVID-19, it may be a while yet before we set aside the face mask. Covering your mouth and nose to protect those around you from the potential spread is still the most effective weapon we have against COVID. Without masks, we make ourselves and others vulnerable to a disease that is still running rampant across the globe. Patience, and face masks, are still the best way forward.