Even as COVID-19 vaccines inch toward global distribution, we're being reminded that this vaccine isn't exactly a "silver bullet." In other words, we'll still need to practice safety measures, like social distancing and avoiding travel, as the vaccine makes its way around the world. That also means we'll continue using some protective measures, like face masks, even after we get the vaccine.
That's right: while you might think getting vaccinated is your go-ahead to ditch the face mask, experts are already urging caution on this topic. "A lot of people are thinking that once they get vaccinated, they're not going to have to wear masks anymore," said Michal Tal, an immunologist at Stanford University, in an interview with The New York Times. "It's really going to be critical for them to know if they have to keep wearing masks, because they could still be contagious."
Are You Still Contagious After Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine?
Experts aren't completely sure if the vaccine prevents people from being able to spread coronavirus, which is a key factor in the mask question. But how could the vaccines protect you from getting sick (as data has shown), but still allow you to catch the virus and pass it on to others?
It comes down to how the vaccine is given, experts say. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are injected into the muscles and then absorbed into the bloodstream. There, they trigger an immune response, prompting your body to produce antibodies. Current vaccine data indicates that this keeps the vaccinated person from getting ill, especially with severe COVID-19, which typically occurs when symptoms manifest in the lungs.
However, the main port of entry for the coronavirus, as with other respiratory infections, is the nose. Some of the antibodies in the blood will circulate to the nasal tissue, but we're not yet sure how many, or if they can get there quickly enough to fully prevent infection.
This does not mean that vaccinated people aren't protected; the vaccines are still effective at blocking severe forms of the disease. However, it's unknown how effective the vaccine will be at preventing more mild nasal symptoms. As Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona, told the NYT, "Preventing severe disease is easiest, preventing mild disease is harder, and preventing all infections is the hardest." That means that, while the vaccine is likely to prevent most people from getting sick, it's possible that you could still get infected afterward and simply be asymptomatic, or have very mild symptoms.
Several studies are in the works to determine whether people can still be infected with the virus after being vaccinated, and to confirm that the antibodies in the blood can travel to the nose and mouth and in adequate amounts. Most recently, a study showed that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine may reduce transmission; COVID-19 tests showed a 67 percent reduction in positive swabs after participants were vaccinated. Other related research also looks positive: a study among COVID-19 patients has shown antibody levels in saliva were close to those in the blood, which suggests that mucosal tissues in the nose and throat would also be protected. Meanwhile, a recent study showed that people who were given a flu vaccine via a shot into the muscle (like the COVID-19 vaccines) showed high levels of antibodies in the nose. This kind of data is leading experts to feel optimistic that the vaccines will be effective enough in the nose and throat to prevent people from spreading the virus, according to the NYT.
Should You Wear a Face Mask After Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine?
Because we're not sure if vaccinated people can spread the virus, you should plan to wear a face mask even after you get vaccinated. This is because masks are highly effective at stopping viral particles from spreading from you to the people around you, by essentially blocking respiratory droplets, which can transmit the virus as they leave your nose and mouth. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently noted that masks protect the wearer as well.
Key data is still coming in about the antibody response to the coronavirus vaccines, and whether it's effective enough to prevent a vaccinated person from spreading the virus. As we learn more, plan to keep wearing your mask even after you've been vaccinated, both to protect yourself and the people around you.
POPSUGAR aims to give you the most accurate and up-to-date information about the coronavirus, but details and recommendations about this pandemic may have changed since publication. For the latest information on COVID-19, please check out resources from the WHO, CDC, and local public health departments.