What Experts Think 2021 Will Look Like, Now That We Have Coronavirus Vaccines

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If you’re anything like me, you’re starting to get excited about the possibility of life post-pandemic now that the first coronavirus vaccine is officially rolling out in the U.S. (Which friend’s couch can I crash on first? How many cafe Wi-Fi networks can I connect my laptop to in a single week?) News is happening so fast, it’s been hard to understand what the next year might look like. According to Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, we should have vaccinated high-risk people by April, and by April or May, there should be enough vaccine doses for most of the general population to get vaccinated, as SELF previously reported.

But what does that mean as far as making plans for the year? Turns out, you might want to hold off on booking international vacation plans this summer, but cuddling with your (vaccinated) friends and family members could be in the cards relatively soon.

SELF spoke with three experts to get a handle on where we’re headed with vaccination and what life could look like in the coming months: Jessica Malaty Rivera, M.S., a microbiologist in charge of science communications for the COVID Tracking Project; Sandra Albrecht, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and chief epidemiologist at Dear Pandemic; and Sara Hurtado Bares, M.D., associate professor in the division of infectious diseases at University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Here’s where these experts think we’re headed in 2021.

SELF: When do you expect that everyone in the U.S. will have access to a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine?

Sandra Albrecht, Ph.D., M.P.H.: The earliest will likely be in the spring, but more likely over the summer.

Jessica Malaty Rivera, M.S.: I feel like it’ll probably be closer to Q3 of next year. Q2, Q3. But we’re talking about hundreds of millions of people needing to get vaccinated. It’s gonna take a long time.

Sara Hurtado Bares, M.D.: I think with the Operation Warp Speed timeline, it’s been much earlier than I really thought it would be before we began to see everything roll out. But it sounds like by spring of 2021, by April, May, June, is when it may be available for the general population.

SELF: How concerned are you about vaccine hesitancy? Is there anything that concerns you more in regards to vaccination?

J.M.R.: Very concerned. It’s especially a concern with the coronavirus vaccine because there has been a prolific amount of misinformation about the virus and the vaccine itself. I’m also concerned about the logistics. You know, if we’re primarily going to be using the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, those vaccines required two doses for efficacy. That’s people having to go in two times, weeks apart for complete protection, and it’s gonna take a while to be managing all those visits and appointments. It’s gonna be bumpy, I think.

S.H.B.: I think it’s absolutely a concern. It’s not new with coronavirus. There may be groups that are more likely to be hesitant to receive the vaccine than others and for very, very understandable reasons. The Black community has, among other experiences, been experimented on with the Tuskegee trials, where they did not receive treatment for syphilis. Some Latino individuals, among other populations, are concerned that contact tracing and things like that may reveal their immigration status. We’ll need to make sure that the outreach and the education are culturally sensitive.

S.A.: Vaccine hesitancy is a major concern, but it’s also an understandable one. The vaccines in the U.S. (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) were developed and tested relatively quickly compared to past vaccines, they use technology that hasn’t been used before in widespread rollout of a vaccine, and people have just been on edge for months now, so they’re very anxious. But as scientists and public health professionals, we need to do a better job addressing these concerns in all segments of the population. For example, although development appears fast-paced, it was based off of years of prior research. Scientists were not starting from scratch. mRNA vaccines have also been studied extensively in the past, so although the technology seems new to many people, it’s not a novel one to many scientists. We need to do better about getting the facts out to the public using language that’s accessible to everyone.

SELF: How long will we need to wear masks?

S.A.: Masks will still be needed after vaccination until we have more data.

J.M.R.: I think we’ll be wearing masks well into 2021. The vaccine is not going to be a panacea. We’re going to need to still rely on public health mitigation until we get transmission low and vaccination up.

S.H.B.: I think we will probably be wearing masks at least through the end of 2021. And masks may end up being the new normal for a long time to come. It may be that we wear masks when we’re in more crowded settings, in health care settings, or seasonal masks, even three years down the line. Many people in several Asian countries are apt to do that: When you’re sick, you put on a mask.

SELF: Why will we still need to wear masks?

S.A.: Based on what we know about the vaccines so far, we don’t know if they prevent people from becoming infected. We just know that people don’t have severe symptoms, which is a huge benefit regardless. But if people can still become infected but are asymptomatic, they may still be able to transmit the virus to others. We don’t yet have an answer as to whether the vaccines prevent infection, but we hope to soon.

Aside from this, we also don’t know how long protection from the vaccine lasts. We will only know this by following people over a longer period of time. But for now, since we don’t know if immunity will happen or how long immunity will last, that’s another reason why many of the precautions will still need to be in place.

J.M.R.: The vaccine is not 100% protection. If we’re talking about most people getting vaccinated closer to the fall of next year, that’s a good several months of next year of us needing to still protect each other in other ways.

SELF: When do you think we’ll be able to safely spend time with our friends and family again, without distance and masking? (Hugs would be nice!)

J.M.R.: I feel like the only way to eliminate risk is to not be doing those things. I think that a life in which we aren’t limited by these mitigation efforts is going to be well after a vaccine. So in my mind, that looks like next fall or winter.

S.A.: A lot of this will depend on a variety of factors, so I’m always hesitant about applying a timeline to these activities. For everything to begin to go back to the way we did things in pre-COVID times, we would need a large proportion of the population to be vaccinated, and this extends beyond the U.S. borders. But I also don’t think we need to completely forgo these activities. There are ways to reduce the risk of infection.

S.H.B.: If everyone in that group of friends and family members is vaccinated, I think that would be sooner rather than later. That could be as early as this summer.

SELF: When do you think we’ll be able to safely eat in restaurants again?

J.M.R.: The thought of it, honestly, it just seems so foreign to me now. I hope next fall or winter.

S.H.B.: That’s going to be something that everyone’s going to need to do their own risk calculations. I think that will really largely depend on what the uptake is in the community. Once the vaccine is available to the general public, what is the uptake in your area? If you’re in an area where the uptake is really high, I would feel more comfortable. But if you’re living in a community where the uptake is very low, then I wouldn’t feel comfortable.

SELF: When do you think we’ll be able to gather indoors for smaller events, like choir or fitness classes?

J.M.R.: I would say that any high-risk activity that we have been saying to avoid won’t be recommended until we are post-vaccination. So I would say next fall or winter.

S.H.B.: I think that’s very similar to restaurants because those are higher risk activities. That’s something that would be later down the road, but similarly with indoor restaurants, I think it could depend on the vaccine uptake in your community.

SELF: When do you think we’ll be able to gather at large events, like weddings, concerts, or sports games?

S.A.: It’ll be safer to engage in these activities if community transmission is low.

J.M.R.: I would say that most people need to be vaccinated before we can say it’s OK for large groups of people, intermingling households, to be meeting without things like masks.

S.H.B.: I think that’s going to be even further down the road. Outdoor weddings and outdoor sports arenas are going to be safer than indoors. But it’s going to be something we would want to wait until we have really high vaccine uptake before doing those things.

SELF: When do you think we’ll be able to travel—both domestically and abroad—again? When will you feel comfortable flying?

S.A.: For me personally, I would fly if there is a need (like an emergency), but in terms of flying for leisure, I’d be more comfortable doing so when community transmission at my place of origin and at my destination is low. This can be achieved through the implementation of safety measures or it may be achieved through widespread vaccination. In both instances, human behavior will determine that timeline which is what makes this difficult to predict.

J.M.R.: I’m not going to do any voluntary travel, non-essential travel, until my family is vaccinated. And it would depend on what the vaccination levels are for wherever we would travel to. If the CDC says that there are ongoing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses or any illness in the country, it’s something that I always have considered in my travel.

S.H.B.: I actually think that may be possible sooner than large gatherings. I hope soon because I miss my family. My dad and family live in Mexico, and I miss them terribly. I’m optimistic that I’ll be able to go this summer or fall.

SELF: What are the chances that this virus could mutate as the year progresses and require a new vaccine?

J.M.R.: I think a lot of people are concerned about this, but I don’t think we really need to be. Of course, we are still monitoring the evolution of the virus, but mutations are very, very normal for viruses, and they can be mostly insignificant.

S.H.B.: It’s something we’ll need to keep monitoring and new vaccines may need to be developed should it happen. But it’s not something that’s keeping me up at night.

SELF: Do you expect we’ll still have pockets of outbreaks in the coming years?

S.A.: It’s possible if not enough people have immunity. There will also likely be segments of the population who may not be able to get vaccinated for medical reasons, so if otherwise healthy people are not immune and are transmitting the virus, we might see outbreaks among those vulnerable groups that were not vaccinated.

J.M.R.: I do. I think that we’ll be able to manage it and live with it much easier. I don’t think that the virus is going to just immediately disappear.

S.H.B.: I think this is going to be with us for a long time to come and there will continue to be outbreaks in different areas.

SELF: If you could give people in this country one piece of advice or encouragement as the vaccine rolls out, what would it be?

S.A.: There is a light at the end of the tunnel! In all honesty, as an epidemiologist, I didn’t think it was possible to have such an effective vaccine so soon. But we’ve seen what’s scientifically possible when all hands are on deck working towards a common goal. This is really encouraging both in terms of the pandemic, but also for research related to other public health issues.

J.M.R.: I would just want to encourage people to know that all these public health mitigation efforts are not in vain, that the sacrifices that seem burdensome right now are actually changing community health. I think the vaccine is a very encouraging milestone, and I’m looking forward to life post-vaccine.

S.H.B.: I would say thank you for all you’ve done so far to reduce the spread of this virus. As the vaccine receives approval and we work hard to distribute it, we’ll need to keep working hard and keep social distancing and keep wearing masks. Because that’s gonna make the vaccine all the more effective if we can have lower rates in the community when we roll out the vaccine. So yeah, patience. This hard work will pay off soon.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

 

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