The arrival of the first COVID-19 vaccine will not mean people can throw their masks away, experts say. Face coverings, social distancing and rigorous hand-washing still will be required for some time. How long depends on factors including how good the vaccines are and how long protection lasts — questions that will not be answered when the first shots arrive. For starters, a vaccine may not be 100% effective.  “This vaccine is not likely to be a suit of armor,” said Vanderbilt University Medical Center infectious disease professor William Schaffner.  A 10-year-old boy reacts to an influenza vaccine during an annual flu vaccination event at the Exposition Park in Los Angeles, Oct. 17, 2020.The FILE – A sign encouraging the wearing of masks and keeping social distancing stands at a street corner in downtown Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 5, 2020.The vaccine could produce an immune response that does not completely block the virus, but tamps it down enough so that the patient does not develop symptoms.  However, asymptomatic patients can still be infectious. That is one of the factors that makes COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, so hard to control.  Also, the vaccine may not protect everyone equally.  There may be “big, big differences” in how children, adolescents, adults and seniors respond to a vaccine, said University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research Director Paul Duprex. Influenza vaccines tend to not work as well in older people, for example.  People with some underlying health conditions may respond better or worse than others. Also, there may be differences among different ethnic groups.  “Biology is not black and white,” Duprex said. “Biology is a super gray thing.” Vaccine hesitancy When we can take our masks off also will depend on how many people get their shots. The goal is to get enough people immunized so that the virus has a hard time finding new people to infect, a point known as herd immunity.  However, A mailbox containing free masks for pedestrians stands in the center of Tenafly, N.J., Oct. 22, 2020.Once the vaccines roll out, it still might be wise to hold onto your mask. Scientists will not know how long these brand-new vaccines give protection.  “If the trial’s been going on for six months, we’re going to not really know if the immunity lasts three, five or 10 years,” Larremore said. Scientists do not know how long the body’s defenses remain active after a natural infection with this virus, either.  Viruses related to the COVID-19 coronavirus cause common colds. These viruses generate immune responses that wane after a few months to a couple years.  “What you could assume is, if the virus doesn’t give you long-lived immune responses, then potentially the vaccine won’t give long-lived immune responses,” said Duprex, of the University of Pittsburgh. Expect to keep your mask on at least through much of 2021 while the vaccines roll out and scientists learn more about them. Even then, the virus may not disappear completely. COVID-19 may become a regular public health threat.  “I think that if you were a betting person, you would say this probably won’t completely go away,” Goodman said. “But, in nature, strange things happen.” 
 

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