Will I have to wear a mask after receiving the Covid vaccine? The science explained
With Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine close to distribution in the US, the end of the pandemic seems like a big step closer. But not everything will return to normal immediately. Public health authorities want people to continue wearing masks and social distancing, even after receiving a vaccine. This may seem counterintuitive; after all, if someone receives a vaccine, are they not protected from the coronavirus? The answer is complicated: the vast majority of vaccinated people will be protected from Covid-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, vaccinated people can still transmit the virus, even if they do not have any symptoms. “Now we know that vaccines can protect, but what we haven’t had enough time to really understand is: does it protect from spread?” said Avery August, a professor of immunology at Cornell University. This is because the SARS-CoV-2 virus can still colonize the respiratory tract, even as systemic immune cells protect the body as a whole from the disease it causes: Covid-19. Here’s how it works: default When can I stop wearing a mask? Fasten your mask (s) for the foreseeable future. Right now, there are several unknowns that make wearing masks and social distancing important in protecting the wider community. First, scientists do not know how Covid-19 vaccines can protect against asymptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (as explained above). There are promising signs, but the investigation remains incomplete. Researchers also don’t know how long Covid-19 vaccines can protect people from the virus. Scientists will also be closely watching how evolutionary changes in the virus, or variants, impact the effectiveness of vaccines. Researchers have already found that the effectiveness of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was reduced in South Africa, where the B1351 variant is present. However, the most important factor may be the extent to which eligible adults accept the vaccine. Children can transmit the disease, but are not eligible for the vaccine; some people may be too compromised with the immune system to take it; and others may face bureaucratic barriers to vaccination. What good is getting vaccinated if I still have to wear a mask? Think of the use of masks and social distancing as a continuum of risk mitigation strategies, which are in place as scientists conduct research, more and more people are getting vaccinated, and the prevalence of Covid-19 declines. For example, as vaccines continue to roll out, small gatherings of vaccinated people will become more common. Then those same people should be aware of social distancing and wearing masks in public as they could transmit the disease to the wider community. The hope is that as more and more public are vaccinated, fewer people will have severe cases of Covid-19, and the pressure on the healthcare system will decrease with the prevalence of the disease. “Hopefully we can vaccinate the majority of the population,” said Dr. Bruce Y Lee, professor of health policy at the City University of New York School of Public Health. “That’s when we can start talking about moving toward normalcy.” When will we have these answers? Studies on the degree to which vaccines protect against transmission continue and are promising, but incomplete. Vaccines are unlikely to provide complete or “sterilizing” protection. Only a few vaccines can make that claim, including, for example, the smallpox vaccine. However, if a vaccine were to significantly reduce transmission, it would be very good news for the world’s ability to contain the virus. Under normal circumstances, these kinds of questions could have been answered in clinical vaccine trials that lasted years. In this emergency situation, stopping the disease was a more important goal, and the vaccines available do it very effectively. “We would probably know that as more and more people get vaccinated, somewhere in mid-September,” August said. More importantly, however, vaccines do not necessarily need to provide complete protection to help fight the pandemic. “If everyone is vaccinated, there will be less virus,” August said.