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

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.”

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.”

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

Just Posted

A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is displayed at a pop-up vaccine clinic for EMS workers Center in Salt Lake City on January 5, 2021. Yukon Community Services Minister John Streicker says a Vancouver couple accused of flying to a remote Yukon community to get the COVID-19 vaccine are getting a notice to appear in court. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Rick Bowmer
B.C. couple accused of flying to Yukon to get COVID-19 vaccine to appear in court

If convicted, they could serve up to six months in jail

Canadian Pacific Rail locomotives sit idle at the company’s Port Coquitlam yard east of Vancouver, B.C., on May 23, 2012. Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. says it will seek shareholder and regulatory approval for a five-for-one split of its common shares. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
CP Rail beats earnings forecasts as Q4 profit up 21 per cent despite softer revenues

Coal volumes fell one per cent, energy down 27 per cent

FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2019, file photo, a man leaves an Apple store in Beijing. Apple says it will roll out a new privacy control in spring 2021 to prevent iPhone apps from secretly shadowing people. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)
Apple to crack down on tracking iPhone users in early spring

App Tracking Transparency will be part of software update

A lone passenger stands outside the International Arrivals area at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. As the federal government prepares to slap new restrictions on foreign arrivals, Health Canada data suggest a growing number of infections directly connected to international travel. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Holiday season vacations coincide with rise in COVID-19 travel-related cases

486 COVID-19 cases diagnosed in recent travellers in December

People protest against new anti-abortion laws, near the ruling Law and Justice party headquarters in Warsaw, Poland Wednesday Jan. 27, 2021, to protest after the country’s top court on Wednesday confirmed its highly divisive ruling that will further tighten the predominantly Catholic nation’s strict anti-abortion law. The Constitutional Tribunal published the justification of its decision, which will take immediate effect.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Poland: Near-total abortion ban takes effect amid protests

People poured onto the streets of Warsaw and other cities late Wednesday

Canada’s Rachael Karker competes during the women’s World Cup freestyle ski halfpipe event in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. The X Games are Karker’s first and perhaps only chance to compete this season. The Canadian freestyle skier’s breakout performances in Aspen, Colo., the last two years launched her into the world’s elite in halfpipe. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
X Games an island in a competition desert for Canada’s top boarders, freestyle skiers

Rachael Karker will drop into the Buttermilk Mountain halfpipe Friday

Canada’s Haley Smith makes a jump during the women’s cross-country race at the Nerrang mountain bike trails during the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, Thursday, April 12, 2018. When COVID-19 swept across the country last spring, forcing lockdowns and cancelling sporting events, Canadian mountain biker Haley Smith’s response was swift — train harder. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Rick Rycroft
Canadian mountain biker Haley Smith climbing back from ‘rock bottom’

For years Smith has spoken about living with anxiety and her eating disorder

A carved stone pillar is shown in this July 2020 handout photo. The Royal B.C. Museum says it has confirmed a carved stone pillar found at low tide on a beach in Victoria last summer is an Indigenous artifact. The museum says in a news release it will work with the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations to determine the most suitable home for the pillar carved with the features of a face. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Royal BC Museum, Grant Keddie
Carved stone pillar found on B.C. beach identified as Indigenous artifact

Museum working with Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations

Fashion mogul Peter Nygard is shown during a bail hearing in Winnipeg on Jan. 19, 2021, in this courtroom sketch. Lawyers for Nygard are back in court today arguing for his release as the Canadian fashion mogul faces charges of sex trafficking and racketeering in the United States. Nygard, who is 79, was arrested last month in Winnipeg under the Extradition Act and faces nine counts in the southern District of New York. His lawyers are expected to present a new bail plan after the judge presiding over the bail hearing criticized the previous one. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tadens Mpwene
Bail hearing continues for fashion king Peter Nygard on U.S. sex charges

Nygard has the means to flee, say federal lawyers

FILE - Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has his final meeting of the season with the media at the NHL hockey team's practice facility in Cranberry, Pa., in this Wednesday, May 9, 2018, file photo. Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, a Hall of Famer who helped lead to a pair of Stanley Cup titles, resigned abruptly on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, who oversaw Cup wins, resigns

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, who oversaw Cup wins, resigns

Outfielder George Springer is shown in a screengrab from a virtual news conference he took part in on Wednesday, Jan.27, 2021. Springer says he's excited to be a part of a young, talented team like the Toronto Blue Jays, a club he believes has plenty of potential. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
Blue Jays introduce outfielder George Springer after signing him to six-year deal

Blue Jays introduce outfielder George Springer after signing him to six-year deal

Bucs fans set to cheer inside, outside Super Bowl stadium

Bucs fans set to cheer inside, outside Super Bowl stadium

Most Read