With millions of vaccines starting to be administered around the country, a common question from older Americans is, “Do I still have to wear my mask?” Health experts are saying that masks will remain effective, even essential, for our country to heal.
“The best hope for ending the pandemic isn’t to choose between masks, physical distancing, and vaccines, Offit said, but to combine them. “The three approaches work best as a team,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan. “Masks and distancing are here to stay.”.
The short answer is YES, but here is why.
Vaccines are not 100% effective.
Large clinical trials found that two doses of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines prevented 95% of illnesses caused by the coronavirus. While those statistics are encouraging, 1 in 20 people are still left unprotected, said Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It takes time for vaccines to be effective.
The immune system takes about two weeks to create antibodies that block viral infections. In addition, COVID-19 vaccines will take a little longer than other inoculations, such as the flu shot because both the Moderna and Pfizer products require two doses. The Pfizer shots are given three weeks apart; the Moderna shots, four weeks apart.
In other words, full protection won’t arrive until five or six weeks after the first shot. So, a person vaccinated on New Year’s Day won’t be fully protected until Valentine’s Day.
COVID-19 vaccines may not prevent you from spreading the virus.
Vaccines can provide two levels of protection: prevention from contracting a virus and prevention from spreading a virus. For example, the measles vaccines prevent viruses from causing infection, so vaccinated people don’t spread the infection or develop symptoms.
Flu shots prevent people from becoming sick but not from becoming infected or passing the virus to others. It is to be determined to understand whether or not COVID-9 vaccines prevent the spreading of the virus. The only certainty we have thus far is that the vaccine prevents illness.
Researchers need more time to figure out whether they prevent transmission, too, said Phoenix-based epidemiologist Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the biodefense program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
“We don’t yet know if the vaccine protects against infection, or only against illness,” said Frieden, now CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, a global public health initiative. “In other words, a vaccinated person might still be able to spread the virus, even if they don’t feel sick.” Until researchers can answer that question, Frieden agreed that wearing masks is the safest way for vaccinated people to protect those around them.
Masks protect people with compromised immune systems.
The action of wearing a mask could be saving the lives of those around you, such as those who are immune-compromised. Studies show that people with cancer are more likely than others to become infected and die from the virus, but may not be protected by vaccines, said Dr. Gary Lyman, a professor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Doctors don’t know much about how people with cancer will respond to vaccines because they were excluded from randomized trials, Lyman said. Only a handful of study participants were diagnosed with cancer after enrolling. Among those people, covid vaccines protected only 76%.
Although the vaccines appear safe, “prior studies with other vaccines raise concerns that immunosuppressed patients, including cancer patients, may not mount as great an immune response as healthy patients,” Lyman said. “For now, we should assume that patients with cancer may not experience the 95% efficacy.”
Despite genetic mutations, masks protect against any strain of the coronavirus.
The recent development of genetic variants of coronavirus is alarming but they have been proven to be at least 50% more contagious than the original virus. So far, studies suggest vaccines will also work against these new strains.
One thing is clear: Public health measures, such as avoiding crowds, physical distancing, and masks, reduce the risk of contracting all strains of the coronavirus, as well as other respiratory diseases, Frieden said. For example, the number of flu cases worldwide has been dramatically lower since countries began asking citizens to stay home and wear masks.
“Masks will remain effective,” Malani said. “But careful and consistent use will be essential.”
Are you wearing your mask?
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