Commentary

Answers to common COVID-19 and vaccine questions

Recovery from global pandemic is still years away

October 21, 2020 6:00 am

Lab Technician Carter Tavaglione loads at Janus G3 automated workstation with coronavirus test samples at Advagenix, a molecular diagnostics laboratory, on Aug. 5, 2020, in Rockville, Maryland. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

With the bleak anniversary of COVID-19 just around the corner, the following addresses common questions about what to expect over the next year and beyond.

How long will the pandemic last?

There are many variables, but expect at least three to five years from the point of origin (late 2019). This is the period of time that preventative measures like quarantines, wearing masks, physical distancing, travel restrictions and contract tracing are likely to remain necessary — even with a vaccine.

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Why won’t a vaccine end the pandemic immediately?

Discovering a vaccine is the first step, but there are still significant challenges to clinical testing among diverse populations, as well as manufacturing and deployment constraints for a vaccine requiring billions of doses worldwide. There may also be a need for follow-up vaccinations, and improved understanding as to the degree of immunity provided, all of which naturally extend the duration of the pandemic.

Can I trust a vaccine when it comes out?

Under President Trump, there is reason to be wary — the political appointments to institutions such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been compromised. The scientists conducting the trials, however, remain diligent in their work, and recent confirmation that a vaccine will not be available prior to the election relieves some political pressure. As a scientist who previously worked in clinical trials, I wrote about five ways to know if a vaccine will be safe without relying on the FDA or CDC.

When will a vaccine be ready?

There are currently eight vaccines in the final stages of clinical testing, but not all of them would be available to Americans immediately. Under Trump, America has operated with a vaccine nationalism approach, meaning the United States isn’t collaborating globally at capacity for vaccine discovery, production or distribution. This has created a sort of race to the cure. If an American vaccine is effective, we will have ready access. If, however, the Chinese or other nations produce the most effective vaccine, we may have added years to our recovery.

Assuming an American-accessible vaccine is successful, the FDA will likely release an emergency use authorization prior to approval, perhaps as soon as this year or early 2021. This will allow frontline workers to access the vaccine without enrolling in clinical trials. However, this can in turn slow clinical trial enrollment, delaying full approval. Accordingly, population-wide distribution is not expected until at least early to mid-2021.

Will I be forced to take a vaccine?

No one will ever be forced to use a vaccine, however, it is possible that a vaccine will be required to attend in-person public events, schools or institutions. This supports the quickest and safest way to reopen our economy in full.

The categories of COVID-19 vaccination recipients and the phases in which the vaccine would be administered is part of the Colorado COVID-19 Vaccination Plan. (screenshot)

Who will get the vaccine first?

In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis has released a preliminary vaccine distribution plan. The plan reflects expert recommendations to triage high-risk populations such as medical staff, police departments and first responders under the EUA. It then extends to those living in shared homes, work environments and beyond as a vaccine becomes more widely available.

Why aren’t kids and pregnant women included in Colorado’s vaccine plan?

Current clinical testing has not yet been conducted on vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and children. This is standard practice and critical for safety precautions. Once the vaccine is determined to be safe and effective for these populations, it will become available. 

Once I’m vaccinated, how long will it work?

Unfortunately, until we know for sure which vaccine will be distributed, how effective it is and how SARS-CoV-2 will behave over time, there’s no definitive answer to this question. 

If I get the vaccine, will I still need to wear a mask?

Yes! Once you get a vaccine, it can take weeks to build an immune response, and some people won’t build one at all. This means you could still be susceptible to infection, or even still be a carrier and infect others. Until doctors and scientists say otherwise, please follow precautions.

Could a cure be an alternative to a vaccine?

To date, there is no cure for COVID-19, and even with treatments many patients experience chronic symptoms after infection ranging from damage to the brain, heart, lungs and more. Given the potential for disease severity, prevention strategies are best.

Are masks acting like a vaccine?

In addition to slowing the spread of the virus, recent perspectives in the New England Journal of Medicine consider that masks may, in essence, be acting like a vaccine. While masks reduce our exposure to the virus, they don’t necessarily eliminate all exposure. By introducing small and manageable amounts of the virus over time — much like we do with a vaccine — the body can work to produce an immune response without subjecting us to severe symptoms. This further highlights why masks are necessary, as they are potentially a safer, and quicker, way toward building herd immunity.

When will masks and physical distancing be unnecessary?

The most likely scenario is when herd immunity is achieved, which requires enough of a population to become immune to COVID-19 that it essentially makes transmission unlikely. There are two ways for this to occur: Either enough of the population must be infected and recover from the virus — which for COVID-19 would mean many millions of deaths in America — or immunity can be achieved more safely via a vaccine. The percentage of a population required to reach herd immunity varies per disease, but it is often greater than 90%. The sooner we all vaccinate, the sooner we can ditch the masks.

With the 2021 legislative session about to begin, what are some measures our state representatives can take?

Above all else, policymakers should appreciate the expected timeline and prepare accordingly. Robust investments toward a combination of rapid testing, contract tracing and quarantine methods, alongside masks and early vaccination, could enable earlier lifting of restrictions such as business and school closures. Additionally, addressing pandemic-heightened inequities such as internet access, worker safety measures, home evictions and social assistance programs will be paramount to long-term economic recovery.

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Trish Zornio
Trish Zornio

Trish Zornio is a scientist and lecturer in behavioral neuroscience and research methodology at the University of Colorado Denver. She has worked for some of the nation's top universities and hospitals and has focused her personal efforts on enhancing the intersection of science and policy, as well as women in STEM. Zornio is an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.

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