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‘Normalcy’ is still a long ways off, despite COVID vaccine rollout| COMMENTARY

Jessica Rich, of Glen Arm, gets a vaccine administered by Spc. Theophilus Foinmbam. COVID-19 vaccines are administered Thursday evening at the Timonium Fairgrounds. 01-28-2021
Jessica Rich, of Glen Arm, gets a vaccine administered by Spc. Theophilus Foinmbam. COVID-19 vaccines are administered Thursday evening at the Timonium Fairgrounds. 01-28-2021 (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

To say we were overjoyed after we were each vaccinated against COVID-19 would be an understatement. As two physicians, one of whom works in the ER and the other of whom works in the medical wards and ICUs, we had spent our shifts watching COVID ravage our patients and worrying that we would contract the virus ourselves.

This vaccine marks, to date, the best weapon available to turn the tide against this virus. However, as the vaccine begins to be rolled out to the general public, we do want to remind everyone that this vaccine, while incredible, will not end the threat that COVID poses overnight.

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Vaccines are exceedingly useful at eradicating disease. In fact, the World Health Organization states that the only thing better at eradicating disease is access to clean water. The COVID vaccines are incredibly effective: Pfizer’s vaccine has been shown to be 95% effective at preventing symptomatic infections, and Moderna’s is 94%. In the medical field, it doesn’t get much better than that. For the sake of comparison, take the influenza vaccine, which in 2019-2020 flu season was only 39% effective at preventing disease but is still considered a very important protective measure. Regardless of which vaccine you ultimately receive (we both received the Pfizer vaccine) you will be very well protected.

However, we want to emphasize that getting the vaccine is not going to suddenly end the threat that COVID poses, nor immediately lead to life going back to normal. Vaccines are unmatched in their ability to prevent diseases, but this effect takes time. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control says that developing immunity “typically takes a few weeks.” Specifically, Pfizer says immunity will not kick in until at least seven days after the second dose, and Moderna estimates it will take 14 days after your second dose. That means that, unfortunately, you could still contract COVID for a period of time after being vaccinated.

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Additionally, it is not enough for you to get the COVID vaccine. For the vaccine to truly be effective, it must be widely distributed. The goal of any mass vaccination program is to get enough people vaccinated to reach “herd immunity.” Herd immunity occurs when enough people have immunity to a virus that person to person transmission becomes unlikely. Dr. Fauci estimates that 75% to 85% of us will need to be fully vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity. However, as of Jan. 21, the CDC estimates only 4.5% of Americans have received even one dose of the vaccine, so our road to herd immunity is likely to be longer than we’d all like.

Getting enough people vaccinated to reach herd immunity will be how we measure success in the months to come. Until we get there, unfortunately, many of the public health interventions we have come to know will have to remain: 95% effectiveness is amazing, but it isn’t quite perfect. So even if you are vaccinated, it is possible that you could still become sick or even carry the virus without symptoms and spread the virus to those who are not yet protected. Therefore, it is important to remember that continuing to wear a mask, wash your hands and remain socially distant will be just as crucial as it was before to help us beat this virus.

Getting yourself vaccinated is arguably the most important thing you can do to help end the COVID pandemic, but getting your doses will not immediately translate to life going back to normal. This vaccine can eradicate COVID but, until it does, we must continue to be vigilant.

Dr. Gregory Jasani (gjasani@som.umaryland.edu) is an emergency medicine resident physician at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Dr. Jordan Braunfeld (jbraunfeld@som.umaryland.edu) is an internal medicine resident physician at the University of Maryland Medical Center and will be an Infectious Disease fellow at the University of Utah starting in August.

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