As an increasing number of people receive vaccines to help protect against COVID-19, it’s tempting to celebrate immunity by rushing to return to life as we knew it before the pandemic. It’s what we all want. But local experts warn the vaccinated to cool their jets.
“The vaccines are great news for both broader public health and for individuals,” says Dr. Steve Lawrence, a Washington University infectious disease physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “Once enough people in our community are vaccinated, we expect to see the numbers of COVID-19 cases decline significantly to the point where we are no longer at risk for huge spikes that could overwhelm our health care systems. Then, we can start easing some of the restrictions we have in place, layer by layer.”
However, vaccinated or not, everyone needs to be careful until that point, he says. “Until those numbers of COVID-19 cases drop to safer levels, we need to maintain gathering limits, keep our distance from others, and mask when around people who don’t live with us.”
Why can’t those who received vaccines revert to pre-pandemic behaviors? Lawrence says there are two reasons: First, the vaccines do not impart 100-percent immunity, so a risk of infection remains, even for vaccinated people. As community spread decreases, this risk will decline. Second, scientists still are determining whether or not vaccinated individuals could be viral carriers, potentially infecting others.
“We don’t have a lot of data yet about how often vaccinated people can get asymptomatic or low-symptom infection and could pass on the virus to other people, but it does appear that this is still possible, although likely at a lower rate,” says Dr. Rachel Presti, a Washington University infectious disease physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and researcher who led Washington University in St. Louis’ effort to conduct COVID-19 vaccine trials in collaboration with Saint Louis University.
Although we should continue cooperating with health officials’ precautionary recommendations, Lawrence notes that getting vaccinated still offers important peace of mind, compared with life prior to vaccination. “The bottom line is that being vaccinated won’t suddenly allow us to go back to pre-pandemic activities, but it should make us all feel more comfortable with doing things that are that are allowable by the guidance our health departments give us.”
Both physicians also agree that vaccination is important to finally lifting restrictions. “Vaccinating a large proportion of the community will be critically important to getting back to normal, but we need to view this as a community effort, not just individual protection, and so we need people to continue to be patient and be safe until we see the numbers definitively decreasing,” Presti says.
Washington University Physicians, physicians.wustl.edu