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Last updated February 11, 2021. 4 minute read

Can life return to normal after the COVID-19 vaccine?

The COVID-19 vaccines currently available are roughly 95% effective at protecting you from getting sick. But scientists don’t know if the vaccines can also prevent carrying and spreading the virus to others.

Dr Chimene Richa Md Written by Dr. Chimene Richa, MD
Reviewed by Dr. Steve Silvestro, MD

For most people, life has been completely unrooted in the era of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). 

Working from home, attending virtual school, avoiding large family gatherings, and wearing a face mask everywhere are just some of the changes we have all had to make. Despite all this, COVID-19 has taken the top spot as the leading cause of death among Americans over 35. 

The good news is there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks to scientists collaborating worldwide, we now have several vaccines that may help end this pandemic. The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines were the first to receive Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and both have been deemed safe and effective. 

The bad news? Getting the vaccine doesn’t mean that you can put your mask away and go back to life as it was before—at least, not yet. 

Vitals

  • The currently available vaccines are effective at protecting you against COVID-19, but scientists don’t know if they also prevent carrying and spreading the virus.
  • It’s possible to get infected with the coronavirus, even after getting the vaccine. Some people never develop symptoms, and can still pass the infection on to others.
  • Newer strains of the virus are spreading worldwide, and scientists are looking into whether the current vaccines will be effective against them.
  • Even after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, continue to wear a mask and practice social distancing measures.

Will the vaccine make life go back to normal?

In the long run, once everyone has been vaccinated, we can hopefully return to normal life. Well, as normal as life can be post-pandemic. In the meantime, it’s imperative for everyone to continue wearing face masks, practice social distancing, and avoiding large gatherings—even if you’ve been vaccinated. Here’s why. 

Scientists are still gathering data about the vaccine and how it protects people. Clinical trials of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines showed both are almost 95% effective against COVID-19. That means 95% of people who get the vaccine won’t develop COVID-19 if exposed to it. But that still leaves 5% of people who could still get infected—even with the vaccine (FDA, 2020a; FDA, 2020b). 

There’s more. These clinical trials only looked at how many people developed COVID-19 after getting vaccinated. Scientists don’t know how effective the vaccines are against the SARS-CoV-2 itself, the name of the virus that causes COVID-19. One in six people carrying the virus don’t develop symptoms, but they can still transmit the virus to others without realizing it  (Byambasuren, 2020). That means even if you’ve gotten the vaccine, you could still catch the virus and pass it on to others without getting sick yourself. This is why it’s so critical to continue wearing masks and social distancing to help keep others safe from getting sick with COVID-19.

How is the vaccine being rolled out?

The United States is still experiencing tens of thousands of new COVID-19 cases per day. State and local governments are trying to get as many people vaccinated as possible, but there is more demand than vaccine supply. 

Right now, people who are at higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms are preferentially getting the vaccine. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough vaccines for everyone yet. Tens of millions of people have been vaccinated in the United States so far, but we still have a long way to go (CDC, 2021a). That’s another reason why you should continue keeping your distance, avoiding large gatherings, and wearing a face mask to protect those who haven’t been vaccinated yet. 

Does the vaccine protect against new strains of the coronavirus?

Many viruses change and mutate—that’s why you need to get a flu shot every year. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is no exception. Sometimes changes are small enough that it’s still essentially the same virus, while others may be more significant. 

The new virus strains that originated from the UK (B.1.1.7), South Africa (B.1.351), and Brazil (P.1) have mutations that could make the strains spread faster than the original virus. However, more information about these new strains is needed. Scientists also aren’t sure how well the current vaccines will work against these new variants—only time will tell. That’s yet another reason to hang onto your face masks for a while longer (CDC, 2021b). 

Everyone wants this pandemic to be over, but it’s crucial to stay vigilant for now—even if you’ve already received the COVID-19 vaccine. There is an end in sight, but it’s going to take time, patience, and lots of vaccines.