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Why getting vaccinated doesn’t mean you’re done with COVID-19

Vaccines alter the calculation of risk, but don’t eliminate it.

Nurse Sarah Miller administering the COVID-19 vaccine to nurse Emily Lian recently in Hermantown.
Nurse Sarah Miller administering the COVID-19 vaccine to nurse Emily Lian recently in Hermantown.
St. Louis County Public Health & Human Services Dept.

As of Thursday, roughly 120,000 Minnesotans had received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. The first rounds of shots are going to health care workers and employees and residents of long-term care facilities.

It’s expected to be months before all Minnesotans are vaccinated, but after nearly a year of putting some of the richest aspects of life on hold, many are understandably dreaming of a time when they can hug their mom, hold the new grandbaby or travel with less fear of COVID-19.

When will that time come?

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More to learn

It’s tough to predict when life will return to normal. That’s because it’s not clear when enough people will be vaccinated to reach “herd immunity,” which refers to a scenario where so many people have antibodies to COVID-19 that it’s hard for the coronavirus that causes it to move from person to person. This is estimated to happen when perhaps 75 percent to 85 percent of people have been vaccinated.

How soon herd immunity is reached depends on how quickly people are vaccinated, said Dr. Jill Foster, a pediatric infectious disease physician with the University of Minnesota Medical School and M Health Fairview.

If there are significant logistical issues or lots of people refuse the vaccine or drag their feet on getting it, it’ll take longer to reach herd immunity. If the process goes smoothly, it’s easy for people to get their shots and lots of people decide to get vaccinated, “I’d say that by June, we’re going to have enough of the population immunized that people can go back to almost normal,” Foster said.

Because of the importance of making a vaccine available quickly, the process of clinical trials were sped up: pharmaceutical companies ran multiple phases of clinical trials concurrently instead of doing them one after the other, and the federal government paid to manufacture vaccine candidates before they were approved, so people could be vaccinated out of the gate when vaccines were found to be safe. But no corners were cut that compromised the testing of the vaccine’s safety, health officials have said.

Trials suggest both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are pretty effective, estimated to prevent COVID-19 disease 95 percent of the time.

“Having a vaccine is kind of like having a bulletproof vest. It helps you, but if you’re going to go out into an area where there’s bullets flying everywhere, you’re still not going to be safe,” Foster said.

Foster said there’s still a lot we still don’t know about them that could affect how quickly life returns to normal. That includes just how effective the vaccine is across age, and whether the vaccines prevent not just people from getting sick from the disease, but also prevent them from transmitting it to others.

Some good news, though? These big questions about the vaccine should be answered in the coming months as more people are vaccinated.

Calculated risks

F0r now, three things are important to remember: First, getting the vaccination significantly reduces your chances of getting sick from COVID-19. Two, we don’t yet know the degree to which the vaccine prevents you from transmitting COVID-19 to other people, even if you’re not sick. And three, and perhaps most importantly, getting the vaccine doesn’t mean the world with COVID-19 as we know it is over for you.

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Because the vaccines aren’t known to be 100 percent effective at preventing disease, and because they may not block transmission, Minnesotans will need to keep their personal behavior in check: keep wearing masks and socially distancing, even if they’ve been vaccinated, until herd immunity is reached.

“The front-line people who are getting the vaccine — we are getting the vaccine because we work in high-risk areas. We’re not getting the vaccine so we can stop wearing a mask tomorrow,” said Dr. Aditya Shah, a consultant in infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic.

COVID vaccine
Erin Clark/Pool via REUTERS
Trials suggest both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are pretty effective, estimated to prevent severe COVID-19 disease 95 percent of the time.
All of this is not to say that things won’t change when a larger number of Minnesotans are vaccinated against COVID-19. Even before herd immunity is achieved, people will be able to make calculated risks about, say, visiting family members, Shah said.

“In May, if most of the public has got the vaccine, you’ve got the vaccine, your family members have got the vaccine, and you’re still following the rules of social distancing and masking, then it would be safer,” to see family, Shah said. That’s because people who are following those recommendations are much less likely to bring COVID-19 with them to a gathering.

What does that mean for visiting grandma?

“There’s no perfectly safe thing or one perfectly unsafe thing,” Foster said. “People are going to have to make choices of you know, I really really really want to go see grandma, so maybe for the next two weeks, I don’t go out to a bar,” or participate in other activities that could lead to COVID-19 transmission.