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Will the coronavirus vaccine end the pandemic?

Now that we have COVID-19 vaccines, a big question on many Americans’ minds is, will the vaccine end the pandemic?

“The short answer is yes,” says Saju Mathew, M.D., a Piedmont primary care physician. “The long answer is that unless 85% of Americans get the vaccine, we are not even going to get close to ending the pandemic.”

How many people need to get a COVID-19 vaccine?

That threshold is critical because that’s how the United States will achieve herd immunity. Note: The herd immunity threshold estimation varies among experts, ranging from 70% to 90%.

“This virus is so contagious and easily transmissible that it’s not going to be enough if only 50% of Americans get vaccinated,” says Dr. Mathew. “Even if I get the vaccine, if I’m around people who didn’t, I can still transmit the virus. The vaccine prevents disease, but it doesn’t necessarily prevent infection.”

What is herd immunity? 

The vaccine is crucial for reaching the herd immunity threshold we need to return to normal life.

“Herd immunity is achieved when enough people get vaccinated in a community to where we break the transmission of the virus,” he explains. “If we live in a community of 200 people and all of us have gotten vaccinated, I’m protecting you and you’re protecting me. We break the transmission of the virus so everyone in that area is protected from COVID-19.”

Lifting restrictions and allowing as many people as possible to contract the virus naturally would be a dangerous way to achieve herd immunity.

“If we pretend like there’s no pandemic, we’re looking at millions of people dying before 85% of the United States achieves herd immunity through natural infection,” he says. “That’s absolutely not the way to take care of this pandemic. The best way is to protect the vulnerable and the people who have to go to work. We all need to get vaccinated and continue to wear a mask, wash our hands and practice social distancing.”

When will life get back to “normal”?

Dr. Mathew is cautiously optimistic about using the word “normal.”

“‘Normal’ would mean we can travel, go to graduation parties and attend birthday celebrations without wearing a mask,” he says. “I could walk into a gathering of 30 people and feel comfortable that all 30 people have been vaccinated.”

To achieve this sense of normalcy, more than 280 million Americans need to get vaccinated, he explains. Both of the approved vaccines require two doses, which means more than 560 million doses need to be given before we can start returning to normal life.

Can you stop wearing a mask after getting vaccinated?

So, once you get the vaccine, can you stop social distancing and wearing a mask?

“We will need to wear a mask until a large number of Americans are vaccinated and until we see the numbers go down,” says Dr. Mathew. “Once enough people get vaccinated, we’re going to see a drop in death rates, hospitalizations and community transmission. Once those numbers significantly decrease, that’s when we’re going to breathe a sigh of relief.”

Do you still need the vaccine if you’ve had COVID-19?

Even if you’ve had COVID-19, you still need to get vaccinated.

“We think people who have had COVID-19 may only have two to five months of protection,” he says. “With the vaccine, we hope the protection lasts longer, even up to a year. More time and research are needed to determine how long immunity lasts.”

But what if everyone in your circle has gotten vaccinated?

“A big question I get from my friends is, ‘If we go to a house party and all of us are vaccinated, can we take our masks off?’ Technically, yes, but we don’t know how the vaccines will work in real-time,” says Dr. Mathew. “What if it’s 80% effective in one person and 90% in another? We still have to see the numbers go down and stay down before we can slowly start taking off our masks. We still have a way to go.”

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