Health-care workers wait in line at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Health-care workers wait in line at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Socializing after the vaccine: Experts say shot won’t offer ‘free pass’ right away

Expect mask mandates, limits on gatherings, and physical distancing to continue at least through part of 2021

The arrival of COVID vaccines have stirred excitement and optimism for a swift end to the global pandemic, with some seeing the shot as a “free pass” to soon gather and socialize as they did pre-2020.

Not so fast, experts say.

Canada’s first phase of vaccine rollout — targeting front-line health-care workers, long-term care residents and staff, and some Indigenous populations — began last month and is expected to stretch into March before the inoculation process is opened to a broader population this spring.

While experts agree the end of the pandemic is in sight, they say it will take time to determine what level of protection the new vaccines actually provide — and whether they prevent us from spreading the virus.

Experts expect mask mandates, limits on gatherings, and physical distancing measures to continue even as more of us get vaccinated, at least through part of 2021.

“Until we get to a level of herd immunity where we have around 70 per cent of our population vaccinated worldwide, there’s going to be that question of transmission,” said Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist with the University of Manitoba. “And that’s certainly a concern for us.”

Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the two vaccines currently approved for use in Canada, were shown in clinical trials to have a 95 per cent efficacy in preventing severe infection from the virus that causes COVID-19. And while Moderna has some evidence suggesting it also decreases transmission, more data is needed.

Some vaccines, like the one for HPV, offer complete protection from infection and transmission, while others like the flu shot primarily work against acquiring the virus and lessening the severity of symptoms. Kindrachuk says part of the reason for that is the way our immune systems respond to different vaccines.

The COVID vaccine seems to effectively produce neutralizing antibodies, he says, “but not necessarily enough to stop the virus from potentially getting into some of our cells.”

Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease physician in Mississauga, Ont., says answers to the transmission question will only come as “large swathes of the population” start getting vaccinated worldwide.

We may see that the inoculations do decrease transmission, he says, and restrictions could be lifted earlier than experts expect.

“But as it stands in January 2021, when you get vaccinated you’ll want to still act like you were doing before: physical distancing, keeping contacts low, masking indoors,” Chakrabarti said. “As the pandemic starts to ease up, things will change.”

READ MORE: Canada secures 20M more Pfizer vaccine doses; U.S. border closure extended to Feb. 21

Being able to still transmit the virus becomes less of a problem as more and more people are vaccinated, experts say.

But Horacio Bach, an adjunct professor of infectious diseases at UBC, doesn’t expect SARS-CoV-2 to ever be eradicated.

If 30 per cent of the population isn’t immunized, the virus will continue to circulate through them, he says. So effective treatment for COVID-19 will be needed to deal with lingering cases.

“Viruses don’t have brains but they’re not stupid,” he said. “They will continue to find hosts.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease expert with the University of Toronto, says COVID-19’s potential staying power will have less of an impact once pressure is relieved on the health-care system. And that will be achieved by vaccinating high-risk populations early in the rollout.

The first indication that vaccines are working will be a reduction in deaths as long-term care and other high-risk groups are immunized, he says, while case counts will be the last to decrease. That means infection prevention controls will need to be followed while community transmission is still happening.

“Eventually you’ll start to see a reduction in cases as these vaccine programs roll up, and then we’ll start to see public health measures slowly lifted as the year progresses, post-April,” he said. “We’ll probably see a gradual shift allowing larger outdoor gatherings, then indoor gatherings, and eventually lifting of mask mandates.”

An exact timeline for reaching that level is hard to predict, however.

While a highly effective vaccine will allow us to reach herd immunity quicker, Bogoch says a 95 per cent efficacy in a clinical trial might not actually translate that successfully in the real world.

Since efficacy was based on a two-dose regime, Bogoch expects that number to drop if people don’t return for a second shot. It’s also still unknown how effective the vaccine is for segments of the population excluded from clinical trials.

So visiting a grandparent or other high-risk individual in the next couple months will be risky, Bogoch says, even if they’ve been vaccinated.

“The effectiveness is probably going to be lower (than the trials showed),” he said. “And we’ll need to see how this plays out in real time to help drive our behaviours.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2020.

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press

Coronavirusvaccines

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Registered Nurse, Teresa Friesen immunizes Dunrovin resident, Richard Brophy. (Submitted Photo)
Dunrovin residents first to receive vaccine in Quesnel

91 residents in the seniors’ home were given the first dose of their vaccine

The Quesnel Regional Airport hasn’t hosted passenger flights since Central Mountain Air stopped flying into the city in April of 2020 due to a COVID-19 downturn. File Photo
Council trying to attract airlines back to Quesnel

Staff to investigate temporarily waiving landing fees at Quesnel Airport

The KIJHL’s Kamloops Storm players celebrate on the ice at West Fraser Centre after a goal during one of their games in Quesnel in December 2017. Efforts to bring a KIJHL team to Quesnel stalled in 2018 after the league’s executive voted 16-3 against expansion. (Tracey Roberts Photo - Quesnel Cariboo Observer)
Kangaroos fighting GMHL junior expasion into Quesnel

The Senior AA team sent a letter asking council to not support the non-sanctioned league’s efforts

Newly elected Nazko Chief Leah Stump penned a letter explaining the scope of the project. (Photo submitted)
Nazko seeks approval to build housing for members facing lengthy medical visits in Quesnel

The First Nation is looking to build nine units in West Quesnel to help members staying in the city

The trek was made without spectators on Saturday, Jan. 24, 2021. Organizers are planning a second run for February, when they hope public health restrictions are lifted. (Tammy Raynor - Submitted Photo)
As mushers deliver, sled dog mail run organizers announce second event

The dogs made the trip from Quesnel to Barkerville, delivering envelopes of mail for Canada Post

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry addresses the media during a news conference at the BC Centre of Disease Control in Vancouver B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
B.C. announces 485 new COVID-19 cases, fewest deaths in months

‘The actions we take may seem small, but will have a big impact to stop the virus,” urges Dr. Henry

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart share a laugh while speaking to the media before sitting down for a meeting at City Hall, in Vancouver, on Friday August 30, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
Vancouver mayor, Health Canada to formally discuss drug decriminalization

Kennedy Stewart says he’s encouraged by the federal health minister’s commitment to work with the city

Downtown Fernie is pictured after a snowfall.
B.C. Premier John Horgan speaks at B.C. legislature on the province’s mass vaccination plan for COVID-19, Jan. 22, 2021. (B.C. government)
COVID-19 quarantine not an option for B.C., John Horgan says

Apres-ski parties increase risk, not interprovincial travel

Worker at Swartz Bay terminal on Monday, January 20, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)
Former BC Ferries employee alleges he was fired because of his race

Imraan Goondiwala has been granted a BC Human Rights Tribunal hearing

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker have been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s Civil Emergency Measures Act for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
B.C. couple who travelled to Yukon for COVID vaccine ineligible for 2nd dose until summer

Health officials planning new measures to ensure people verify where they live before inoculation

(File)
Mask dispute in court leaves Vancouver cop with broken leg

Man allegedly refused to put on a mask and resisted arrest

(Kraft Dinner/Twitter)
Kraft Dinner launches candy-flavoured mac and cheese just in time for Valentine’s Day

Sweet and cheesy treat will be here just in time for the cheesiest holiday of the year

Most Read