Although these developments mark a historic moment and hold great promise, it does not mean that Americans will soon be able to stop wearing masks. CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, explains why.
CNN: Does the vaccine protect humans from COVID-19? If so, why do I still have to wear a mask?
Win: That’s a good question! It is important to be clear about what we know and what we do not know about what the vaccine does. What we do know is that the Pfizer vaccine is very effective in preventing symptomatic and serious illnesses. This means that the vaccine appears to prevent people from becoming ill so that they can develop symptoms, and it is very important that it prevents people from becoming so seriously ill that they end up in hospital. This is really good news.
Here is what the studies do not yet show. They did not look at whether the vaccine prevented someone from carrying COVID-19 and distributing it to others. It is possible that someone could get the vaccine but still be an asymptomatic carrier. They may not show symptoms, but they have the virus in their nose so they can still transmit it to others when they talk, breathe, sneeze, and so on.
This is the main reason why we can not stop wearing masks immediately after we get the vaccination. The vaccine will protect you from getting sick and then end up in the hospital. But it is possible that you can still carry the virus and be contagious to others. Those who receive the vaccine must therefore still wear masks and physically distance themselves.
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CNN: Does that mean we will have to wear masks in public from now on?
Win: No, not forever, but for a while. It is estimated that about 70% of Americans need to be vaccinated before we get immunity to herd through vaccination. This is the point where enough people have the immune protection that the virus no longer spreads.
That means about 230 million Americans should receive the vaccine. It will take time to produce as many vaccines – and remember that the vaccines are Pfizer and Moderna dual-dose vaccines, so you need twice as many doses as humans. Then the vaccine has to be distributed and actually given to people. If all goes well, the best estimate is that it will be late spring or early summer for most Americans to receive the vaccine. At that point, we could probably see each other without masks – but not before.
CNN: Can this timeline be accelerated?
Win: Vaccine development has already been incredibly fast. The fastest time a vaccine was developed before this pandemic was four years. We now have an authorized vaccine in less than a year.
How quickly we reach herd immunity depends on the production, distribution, and willingness of the American people to take the vaccine. There are concerns that many Americans may not take the vaccine, even if it is available. We need to have a thoughtful public education campaign that suits different communities.
And we all need help! Then take the vaccine if it’s your turn. Help spread the word and convince your family and friends about the importance of the vaccine to save lives and the end of this pandemic.
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CNN: What about people who can’t get the vaccine? Should they continue to wear masks?
Win: For now, everyone should continue to wear masks. There will be a small number of individuals who cannot get vaccines. In the beginning, children cannot get vaccinations because they have not yet been tested on children. It is also possible that there are medical conditions that make it so that certain people cannot get the vaccine, or that the vaccine is less effective for them. Therefore, the rest of us need to be vaccinated to protect them. Herd immunity is also called community immunity: the community is vaccinated to protect everyone.
This is also the reason why we also still wear masks. We do this to protect ourselves and to protect others. Remember that even after we get the vaccine, we can spread the virus to others. The vaccine is also very effective, but it is not 100%. The mask also still protects you.
CNN: Would you still wear a mask after getting the vaccine?
Win: Yes. I will do this to protect others and to protect myself as well. Here’s another way to think about the importance of wearing a mask. The vaccine protects you when the virus reaches your nose and mouth. Your body detects the virus, and instead of the virus attacking your body, your body’s immune system starts invading and getting rid of the virus.
It is very important to prevent the virus from entering your body in the first place. To wear a mask, do so. So too with physical distance. These are very important measures to prevent you from getting coronavirus and transmitting it to others.
You will definitely see that there is mask wearing among health workers, which is one of the first groups to get the vaccine. The vaccine is one important protective layer for us, but we will use these other measures to protect ourselves and those around us.
CNN: With COVID numbers at their highest in the US, the vaccine may not be coming anytime soon. With only a small percentage of the U.S. population receiving the vaccine to begin with, it would seem that most people will not directly enjoy the benefits of this first vaccination, right?
Win: Absolutely. It is amazing that we have a vaccine that looks 95% effective and very safe. We will be able to end the pandemic. But it will take time. The initial allocation of vaccines will reach just over 1% of the population. It will take time to scale up to 70%.
Everyone should continue to adhere to the precautions we’ve been talking about all along: wear a mask. Keep physical distance. Avoid indoor gatherings. Wash your hands.
I will add another one: get the vaccine if it’s your turn. We can get through this winter, and spring and summer hold so much promise.
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