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Last updated September 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 Chimene Richa, MD
Reviewed by Steve Silvestro, MD

For many people, life has been completely uprooted 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 (Woolf, 2021). 

The good news is that there’s a 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. Since then, a third vaccine, the Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) vaccine, has also received Emergency Use authorization, and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has gotten full FDA approval.

The bad news? Getting the vaccine doesn’t mean that you can put your mask away and completely 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, follow guidelines regarding continuing to wear a mask and practicing social distancing measures.

Will the vaccine make life go back to normal?

In the long run, once everyone has been vaccinated, there’s hope that we can return to normal life. Well, as normal as life can be post-pandemic. In the meantime, it’s imperative for everyone to continue to follow CDC guidelines as they evolve. This currently includes wearing face masks, practicing 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 hundreds of thousands of new COVID-19 cases per day (CDC, 2021a). State and local governments are trying to get as many people vaccinated as possible. 

People who are at higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms, such as people with weak immune systems, are the first group recommended to get a booster dose of the vaccine (CDC, 2021b). Hundreds of millions of people have been vaccinated in the United States so far, but we still have a long way to go (CDC, 2021c). 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 arose 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, 2021d). 

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. 

References

  1. Byambasuren, O., Cardona, M., Bell, K., Clark, J., McLaws, M., & Glasziou, P. (2020). Estimating the extent of asymptomatic COVID-19 and its potential for community transmission: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Official Journal Of The Association Of Medical Microbiology And Infectious Disease Canada, 5(4), 223-234. doi: 10.3138/jammi-2020-0030 https://jammi.utpjournals.press/doi/10.3138/jammi-2020-0030.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021a, September). COVID Data Tracker: Trends in Number of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in the US Reported to CDC, by State/Territory. Retrieved on September 10, 2021 from https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#trends_dailytrendscases

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021b, September). COVID-19 Vaccine Booster Shot. Retrieved September 10, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/booster-shot.html
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021c, September). COVID Data Tracker: COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States. Retrieved September 10, 2021 from https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#vaccinations_vacc-total-admin-rate-total

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021d, September). SARS-CoV-2 Variants and Definitions. Retrieved on February 10, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/variant-surveillance/variant-info.html
  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (2020a, December) Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee Meeting – FDA Briefing Document: Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine. Retrieved on February 10, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/media/144434/download
  5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (2020b, December) Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee Meeting – FDA Briefing Document: Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine. Retrieved on February 10, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/media/144245/download.
  6. Woolf SH, Chapman DA, Lee JH. (2021). COVID-19 as the Leading Cause of Death in the United States. JAMA. 325(2):123–124. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.24865 https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2774465.