Paging Dr. Frischer: Return to Normalcy

The COVID vaccine is finally starting to roll out…but oh, ever so slowly. What does the vaccine mean for our return to a “normal” life?


There are so many moving parts to this question. The first job is to simply get enough people vaccinated. We are just getting started; as I am writing this roughly 3.5% of the United States population has been vaccinated. There’s a long way to go before we reach herd immunity.


A second major issue will be to determine just how long immunity lasts from the vaccination. The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines could offer immunity against COVID-19 for months…or perhaps for up to two or three years. Only time and research will determine the exact duration of protection. Vaccinations will likely end up being administered annually (like the flu vaccine), and modified due to viral mutations.


The third issue is that those who are vaccinated can potentially still become infected. Full immunity from the vaccine occurs about one to two weeks following the second and final dose. Once you have been fully vaccinated, your own risk of getting symptomatic or severe COVID-19 drops dramatically. However, the studies looked at whether vaccinated people develop the symptomatic disease, and did not identify asymptomatic cases. A vaccinated person could still get infected and pass along the virus.


A fourth issue is that it appears that a significant proportion of the United States population does not currently intend to become vaccinated. This will keep the virus present and able to spread, and prevent or delay herd immunity.


Finally, this is an ever-changing/mutating virus. Our approved vaccines are absolutely effective. However, in time a new strain could conceivably spread a new COVID infection before new modified vaccines can be developed and distributed.


So, when will the masks come off? 2020 gave us all a lesson in how air-borne illnesses are spread, and masks are giving us, particularly the most vulnerable among us, some protection. Many may continue to wear them. (And, when will each of us choose to go back to handshaking, given that this is such a perfect way to spread germs?)


Those who become fully vaccinated will certainly enjoy a new level of freedom together. They will gather, carpool, enjoy a coffee together…indoors! Visiting vaccinated elderly friends and relatives will become safer.


However, these behaviors will still carry some risks. Theoretically, one fully vaccinated person could carry an asymptomatic case of COVID and spread it to others, even to those who are vaccinated. Any non-vaccinated person could then experience a serious illness. It will be wise for some time to restrict all unmasked gatherings to only those who are vaccinated, and to continue to mask and socially distance when with anyone who is not fully protected. The fully vaccinated person is unlikely to experience a serious illness, but could pass the virus on to someone who is not fully protected.


Does this mean that future gatherings should require proof of vaccination? I have certainly been reading about the possibility of concerts, commercial air flights, and sporting events requiring proof of immunity.


Looking into my own personal crystal ball, I predict that we will be moving to a new version of normal. Relatively easy, low-cost public health precautions like wearing masks, distancing, and keeping our hands clean will remain a part of our lives for some time. Stay safe…and please, please get vaccinated!

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