When I heard the first rounds of the COVID-19 vaccines were ready in the middle of December, I breathed a bit easier and then I saw photos on social media of doctor and nurse friends who were given the vaccine. Those images took my breath away. The vaccine feels like a tangible example of hope. Americans’ inability to follow social distancing and stay-at-home orders—whether because of a lack of support and no other choice or because of selfish desires—has not stopped the spread of the virus like it has in other countries. Since we can’t save ourselves, hopefully science can protect us. I will gladly get the vaccine because I want to keep myself and others safe, I want this pandemic to end, and I’m not a conspiracy theorist. But I, and anyone else who gets the vaccine, still need to practice social distancing and wear a mask.
How The Vaccine Works
Our body’s immune system is crazy smart and when invaded with germs like COVID it quickly tries to rally to fight the infection with white blood cells. If a person is not immunocompromised, the body can usually fight the illness, build antibodies, and remember how to fight the germs if they enter the body again. Vaccines help that process by giving our white blood cells a head start because they have already seen non-threatening elements of a particular germ and know how to fight it. Despite some theories circulating on the internet, the COVID-19 vaccine does not contain tracking devices. Nor does it give you COVID. The COVID-19 vaccines available contain harmless pieces of COVID-19 that inform our bodies how to recognize and fight the actual virus if we become infected with it.
The Vaccine Isn’t A Fail-Safe
As hopeful as I am for a vaccine, effectiveness of stopping the spread of COVID is still dependent on wearing a mask and following CDC’s guidelines for navigating spaces outside of our home. The COVID-19 vaccine is an immunity builder and provides protection, but it doesn’t mean we can’t get COVID and then pass it along to someone else.
Like some other vaccinations, the COVID-19 vaccine requires two rounds or doses, so getting the full protection and immunity of the vaccine may take up to a month. A person can easily become infected with COVID-19 right before or right after receiving the shot and still spread the virus if they aren’t careful.
Studies have shown that the nose is the main point of entry for the coronavirus to get into our systems and helps explain its high transmission rate. When the virus takes up residency in our nose and begins to multiply that’s when the immune system kicks in to produce antibodies that are specific to mucosa which is a mucus membrane that lines many cavities in the body and covers internal organs including the nose, mouth, and lungs. If a person survives and is exposed to COVID-19 a second time, they already carry antibodies needed to stop COVID-19 and should have cells in the nose that will shut down the virus before it travels to other places in the body. However, if a person’s first exposure to fighting the virus is through the vaccine, the point of entry is through the muscles and not the nose.
This means that our bodies will need to send the antibodies to the nasal mucosa to create the protection needed to stop the growth and spread of the virus vs. having it already sitting there and ready. According to Marion Pepper, an immunologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, says “It’s a race: It depends whether the virus can replicate faster, or the immune system can control it faster.” A vaccinated person can still carry a high viral load in their nose.
The studies have shown that the vaccine is effective at preventing severe and symptomatic illness, which means less hospitalizations and death. But CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency doctor and visiting professor at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health says there haven’t been enough studies done to know if a vaccinated person can pass COVID-19 onto someone else. Wen says, “It’s possible that someone could get the vaccine but could still be an asymptomatic carrier. They may not show symptoms, but they have the virus in their nasal passageway so that if they’re speaking, breathing, sneezing and so on, they can still transmit it to others.”
Getting the vaccine is like putting guards in the back of the castle and hoping they can get around the corner fast enough to thwart an invasion that comes from the front. But these guards are better than none and they will prevent the fall of the castle. Our lungs are best protected with the intramuscular vaccine, which is where the site of severe symptoms appear, but our nose and throat are still vulnerable and make it possible for danger to storm another person’s castle who doesn’t have any guards.
Scientists are working to create a nasal spray that would put protection right at the site of the COVID-19’s entry point and provide antibodies in the nose and throat. But until then, even with the vaccine, the virus may very likely be able to be sneezed and breathed out and be a risk to others.
We can’t become complacent and stop wearing masks right after we get the vaccine. You may not become sick or need to be hospitalized, but it’s possible you could still carry the virus and be contagious to others. Please get the vaccine if it’s available to you and please think of others before thinking about ditching the masks.
Information about COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and Scary Mommy is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. With news being updated so frequently, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For this reason, we are encouraging readers to use online resources from local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization to remain as informed as possible.