Vaccinated or not, masks will be necessary for a while. Here’s why.

7March 2021

Vaccinated or not, masks will be necessary for a while. Here’s why.

Minnesota health officials are concerned enough that vaccinated people may still be able to spread the coronavirus they’re asking anyone in routine contact with those who haven’t been inoculated to still get tested regularly for COVID-19.

Scientists are confident the three approved vaccines are effective at preventing COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. What they don’t know for sure is whether vaccinated people can still spread the virus to others who are not protected.

That means masks, social distancing and some other coronavirus mitigation measures will almost certainly still be around after many Minnesotans have been inoculated against COVID-19.

“The data that we have available now tells us the vaccines are safe and effective at preventing disease, severe symptoms and death. However, it has not yet been conclusively shown that a vaccinated person cannot spread COVID asymptomatically,” said John Schadl, a Minnesota Department of Health spokesman.

“Bottom line right now is people need to continue to follow public health recommendations to wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands often, stay home if sick, and get tested when needed,” Schadl said.

Identifying asymptomatic infections is most important in health care settings and schools where a possible outbreak could spread quickly, said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease for the state Department of Health. That’s why health officials are asking health workers, teachers and others in contact with lots of unvaccinated people to get tested routinely — even after they’ve been inoculated.

“It’s a public health disease prevention strategy,” Ehresmann said “There is ongoing evaluation of this across the country. The request we are making is not a research request. It is simply a means to control disease.”

WHAT CHANGES AFTER VACCINATION?

There are currently three vaccines with emergency approval from the federal government. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine only requires one dose.

About two weeks after someone is fully vaccinated, their immune system will have built up protection to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Scientists are not sure how long that protection lasts — it could be years, like with many inoculations, or an annual update may be needed, much like for influenza.

Even after vaccination, there’s a small chance of getting sick with COVID-19, but being inoculated has proved to prevent most severe cases and hospitalizations.

While health officials still want people to wear masks, social distance, avoid crowds and follow other preventive measures, those who’ve been fully vaccinated only need to quarantine after exposure in certain circumstances. Someone exposed to the virus doesn’t need to isolate as long as it was two weeks after vaccination, within 90 days of their final dose and they show no symptoms.

WHEN CAN WE DITCH PRECAUTIONS?

Health officials hope widespread vaccination of roughly 80 percent of the population will lead to herd immunity. When most people are protected against COVID-19, the coronavirus has a harder time spreading to those without protection.

One complicating factor is the current vaccines are not approved for use in anyone under the age of 16. While children are unlikely to get serious cases of COVID-19, they can still spread it.

There are also a lot of unanswered questions about how effective vaccines are against new variants of the coronavirus that have proven to be more contagious and more likely to cause serious infections.

Health officials say coronavirus mitigation efforts will be needed until the amount of virus circulating in communities is very low. As that happens, some precautions can be eased.

So, there’s a good chance there’ll be a Minnesota State Fair, Vikings games with fans and other large-scale gatherings later this year. But masks will likely be the last precaution to go.

“It’s critical that we don’t let down our guard,” Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist, said about the risks related to coronavirus variants.

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