Are you vaccinated? You still need to wear a mask and social distance, experts advise

Hundreds of thousands of Coloradans have received the COVID-19 vaccine as of Feb. 12, and are likely wondering what they can safely do.

The answer, health experts say, is to keep wearing a mask and practice social distancing.

People may think they’re invincible with the vaccinations, but until 70% to 80% of people are vaccinated, the risk of spreading coronavirus remains, including the chance of exposure for others, said Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention for UCHealth .

While the state said this week about half of people 70 and older have been vaccinated, and about 27,000 in the 65-69 age range, too, the large majority of Coloradans are unvaccinated. Medical professionals are still unclear whether people who’ve been inoculated are protected from spreading the disease themselves. Plus, individuals under the age of 16 are unable to get vaccinated.

“We have this whole group of people that don’t have a vaccine available yet,” said Lisa Miller, professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus . “We really want to focus on getting as many people protected against severe disease as we can.”

However, it will be a long time before there is a vaccine for everyone, she said.

Within less than a year, the world went from discovering a brand new virus to having two — almost three safe — effective vaccines under emergency use, said Angela Shen, who is a visiting research scientist at the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia . Usually, it takes 15-20 years to develop a vaccination, she said.

The two vaccinations out currently, from Moderna and Pfizer, require two doses. The first dose of Moderna will get an individual’s effectiveness at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 to 70%, followed by Pfizer at about 55%, Barron said.

The second dose of Moderna is taken 28 days after the initial shot, and when complete is 94.1% effective, Barron said, and Pfizer’s second dose happens 21 days later, with 95% efficacy.

And the new variants are similar enough to the original coronavirus that the vaccine will work, Barron said. She explained it’s like changing your hair color: “If your hair is black one day and blue the next, it’s still you, but it looks a little different.”

However, the vaccination does not protect you fully, Barron said, comparing the vaccine to Kevlar.

“It helps protect you where it has access, but obviously you’re not covered head to toe, you’re still at risk,” she said. “Once you have your vaccine, your risk of getting it is going to be a lot lower, but it’s not zero.”

Miller understands people’s frustration with not being able to go back to normal even after they get the vaccine, but they should find comfort in being protected from becoming sick. While people with the vaccine in theory can gather, there are going to be people outside of that circle that you interact with, Shen said.

“There’s collectivism here,” Shen said. “You’re in it together with everyone around you, whether you like them or not. We’re not without risk.”

Barron said that the new Johnson and Johnson vaccine may help people get vaccinated quicker, because it requires only one dose and doesn’t need to be stored at the cold temperatures that Moderna and Pfizer require.

“I suspect this is going to be a game changer in terms of accessibility,” Barron said.

Shen said despite the differences, one vaccine is not more effective than the other; all three are proven to reduce deaths and hospitalizations.

“The fastest way out of this pandemic is through vaccination,” Shen said. “If you get offered one, you should take it. You should encourage other people to take the vaccine, that’s the fastest way you’re going to get back to a different life that you may want as opposed to the one you have one.”

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