The COVID-19 vaccine is a relief for many around the world, and that may be a problem. Public health experts worry that residents may slack on their precautions when we are still many months away from getting back to normal.
The first case of the more contagious version of the virus has arrived in the United States, Texas has never had more COVID-19 patients in the hospital, and there are less than two dozen remaining ICU beds in Dallas County. Earlier this week, just 2.1 million doses had been delivered to healthcare providers in the United States, out of a total of 11.4 million distributed around the country by Pfizer and Moderna. But most experts say that around 230 million Americans will need to be vaccinated before life can begin to return to normal.
The worry is that the presence of a vaccine will mean residents will let their guards down, and community spread will continue, adding to the death toll and stressing the health system. “The worry is that people think that this is like the switch,” says Dr. Diana Cervantes, an assistant professor and director of the master of public health degree’s epidemiology program at the UNT Health Science Center Fort Worth. “They will think, ‘Now we can turn everything off and go back to normal,’ but it’s going to take time for it to roll out.”
The truth is several hurdles remain before life resembles anything close to normal. While the number of vaccinations is a major one, another is making sure the vaccine is safe for all groups. The current vaccines are not approved for children, and further testing will have to occur before children receive the vaccine. Vaccinated children will allow schools to reopen normally, though there is still some question about whether schools will require the vaccine. Online learning, childcare challenges, and the costs associated with it will all be present until children can be protected.
More time is needed to test the vaccines before they can be available to children under 16. Testing began in October for children aged 12-17, and children under 12 are expected to be enrolled in studies early next year. The results of these studies will need to be tracked for around a year. “Until kids can be vaccinated, life doesn’t go back to normal,” says Dr. Erin Carlson, associate clinical professor, and director of graduate public health programs in the UTA College of Nursing and Health Innovation. “Because we still have the same challenges that we currently have if our children are vulnerable to COVID.”
Another issue public health officials are concerned with is called a “U-shaped Curve of Concern.” This means that when a problem is front-page news, it garners attention, money, and changed behavior. But as those measures begin to work, the problem is mitigated, and it no longer holds the public’s attention. Then the resources and attention that were afforded the problem are taken away, and the issue returns. It is not unlike the nation’s reaction to the pandemic in April and May compared to what is happening now. COVID-19 is most likely a virus that we will be fighting for years to come. “We will have to be vigilant to get what might be a yearly vaccine, like the flu vaccine, or every couple of years,” Carlson says. “It is still going to have to stay on our radar as a community, as a public, and as lawmakers if we are truly going to get a handle on COVID for the indefinite future.”
The overriding message is staying the course and not losing focus on protecting the most vulnerable. “I think it’s important to note that this is this is a very different virus,” Cervantes says. “So it will likely be here for several years at least. You see the light at the end of the tunnel, but that tunnel is still plenty long.”
The world is on its way back to normalcy, but vigilance is still essential. “We need to accept that we will still need to do the current practices. We will still need to wear masks, we will still need to wash our hands, we will still need to be careful about socializing with people outside of our household,” Carlson says. “The vaccine is not magic fairy dust. It does not make COVID go away.”