COVID-19 vaccine distribution is in full swing. In the United States, the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are being injected into arms at a rapid pace. As of March 25, 2021, an estimated 26.3% of the US population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 14.3% have been fully vaccinated (Becker Hospital Review). Many states have already made the vaccine available to all adults, regardless of occupation or health status, and the remaining states are set to follow suit by April 19, 2021, with 90% of the US expected to have access by then.
This is exciting news, signaling the light at the end of the tunnel after over a year of uncertainty, fear, frustration, and—for many—isolation, unemployment, and the loss of friends and family members to this terrible disease. Our mental health has suffered, with 41% of adults in the US reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression, compared to just 11% pre-pandemic (KFF). It is understandable that we are all ready to put COVID behind us and get back to normal as quickly as possible.
What the Vaccine Rollouts Mean for PPE
With the end of the pandemic finally in sight, it is easy to let down your guard and relax social distancing and mask wearing practices. However, it is crucial that we continue to use caution and wear personal protective equipment (like N95, KN95, disposable, or cloth masks) until a sufficient portion of the population has been fully vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. The exact percentage needed to reach this milestone is still unknown, but it is likely still months in the future. Keep reading to learn what the vaccine distribution timeline means for social distancing and personal protective equipment.
What does it mean to be fully vaccinated?
According to the CDC, the definition of full vaccination depends on the vaccine that you received. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both require two doses, administered a few weeks apart. For the two-dose vaccines, you are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the second dose. Do not skip the second dose; it is necessary to ensure you are fully protected.
Meanwhile, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single dose vaccine, and you are considered fully vaccinated 2 weeks after getting the shot. Before the 2 weeks are up, you are not yet fully protected against COVID-19 and must continue to take all precautions in the meantime.
What can I do once I’m fully vaccinated?
According to the CDC, once you have been fully vaccinated, you will be able to:
- Gather with other fully vaccinated people indoors without a mask.
- Gather with one unvaccinated household indoors without a mask, as long as no one in that household is at high risk for COVID-19 complications.
Why do I still need personal protective equipment if I’m vaccinated?
Wearing PPE doesn’t just protect the wearer; it also protects those around you. Even after being vaccinated, mask wearing will remain critically important until enough of the population has been vaccinated to reach herd immunity. There a several reasons for this:
We still don’t know whether or not vaccinated individuals can transmit the virus (CDC). A fully vaccinated person may still be able to pass the virus onto someone else, potentially endangering the lives of at-risk individuals that have not yet been vaccinated.
None of the FDA-approved vaccines are currently approved for use in children. The Pfizer vaccine is authorized for individuals 16 years and older, and the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are authorized for individuals 18 years and older (Yale). Further testing is required before children can get the vaccine.
There isn’t enough data yet to know how effective the current vaccines are against the newer strains of the virus, some of which are significantly more contagious compared to the original strain. Early studies suggest that some of the vaccines have significantly lower efficacy against the B.1.351 variant of the virus, compared to the original virus (Medical News Today).
As the virus continues to spread throughout our communities, additional mutations remain possible. New variants could further reduce the efficacy of the existing vaccines, and vaccines may need to be adapted to match these variants (Medical News Today).
- Some people cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, including those with a history of anaphylaxis in response to another vaccine or a component of the COVID-19 vaccine (Yale). Ultimately, achieving broad vaccine adoption and herd immunity will help protect vulnerable members of society that cannot get the vaccine. In the meantime, mask wearing and social distancing are our best strategies to protect our neighbors.
While scientists seek the answers, each of us as individuals should continue to take health and safety precautions (including wearing PPE), particularly in situations where the vaccination status of others is unknown. Maintaining high levels of precaution even after you are fully vaccinated will help protect those at risk, reduce the risk of further virus mutations, and enable our communities to return to normal faster.
Once I’m fully vaccinated, when should I wear a mask?
The short answer: When in doubt, grab that mask and keep 6 feet of distance.
Longer answer: The CDC provides a list of scenarios where you’ll still need to wear a mask and maintain social distancing after being vaccinated:
In public spaces, including grocery and retail stores, workplaces, places of worship, common areas in hotels and residential buildings, and outdoors when maintaining 6 feet of distance is not possible.
Gathering with multiple households of unvaccinated people.
- Getting together with any unvaccinated person that is either at a high risk for COVID complications or lives with someone who is at risk.
The CDC also recommends avoiding unnecessary travel and medium-to-large size groups, which still carry increased risk of spreading the virus. In addition, even after you are fully vaccinated, be aware of your own health, and get tested if you experience any symptoms of COVID-19.