Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine shown on Dec. 12, 2020. Courtesy of Marco Verch/Creative Commons.

As the United States reached a grim death toll on the morning of Dec. 14, 2020, topping 150,000 deaths, the first beacon of hope reached the country. The nation watched Sandra Lindsay​, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, receive the first coronavirus vaccine manufactured by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE.

“I hope this marks the beginning of the end of a very painful time in our history,” Ms. Lindsay said after receiving the vaccine. She added that she wants to “instill public confidence that the vaccine is safe. We’re in a pandemic and so we all need to do our part.”

The vaccine was manufactured in less than a year – a groundbreaking record considering the fastest vaccine, mumps, took ​four years​ to develop. However, the fast-paced development of the COVID-19 vaccine shouldn’t be a cause for alarm. Dr. Melissa Martinez did advanced studies on immunization with the American Academy of Family Physicians and serves on the National Vaccine Advisory Committee. On the Oct. 1, 2020 episode of the NPR LifeKit​ podcast, she reassured listeners: the scientists who developed this vaccine didn’t start from scratch.

Indeed, SARS-CoV-2 is a member of the coronavirus family. There are ​hundreds of coronaviruses​ – including four that can cause a common cold. Building on that previous research on SARS and MERS, scientists were well positioned to rapidly develop COVID-19 vaccines. That background research, in addition with the global collaboration and recent technology that allows vaccines to be developed quickly can be credited for this fast manufacturing. Attempting to reassure a dubious public, scientists have been emphasizing that no shortcuts were taken in the development of these vaccines.

The federal government then quickly prepared for its largest ever immunization campaign, determining distribution phases, prioritizing health care workers and elderly people living in residential care. While the U.S. government originally estimated that ​20 million Americans would be vaccinated by the end of 2020, when the ball dropped on Dec. 31, the numbers of vaccines administered fell dramatically short of that goal, with only 2.1 million vaccines administered.

As hundreds of millions of Americans await for the vaccine – many who won’t be vaccinated until well into Spring 2021 – all wonder, what now?

While the widespread distrust and skepticism surrounding vaccines is somewhat recent, vaccines aren’t. Indeed, vaccines were first used as early as in the 16th century. Physicians in China and other parts of Asia understood that by being exposed to small doses of diseases, people would develop immunity protecting them from getting infected again. And today, that is still how vaccines work.

According to ​WHO​, centuries later, “we now have vaccines to prevent more than 20 life-threatening diseases, helping people of all ages live longer, healthier lives. Immunization currently prevents 2-3 million deaths every year from diseases like diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, influenza and measles.”

Over decades, vaccines have proven their efficiency time and time again with whooping cough, tetanus, diphtheria, rubella, measles and mumps – by either eradicating the diseases or highly decreasing the number of deaths they caused.

if vaccines have been safely stopping diseases for centuries, why all the suspicion? Since the news of the first COVID-19 cases in China reached the U.S., it has been an epidemic of misinformation and conspiracy theories. And as if the conspiracy theories alone weren’t dangerous enough, the handling of the pandemic in the U.S. as well as the development of the vaccine quickly became strongly politicized. Too many times during this pandemic, politics interfered with science and public health which created a rise in distrust, especially in communities of color ​hit the hardest by the virus.

Some level of skepticism regarding the long-term effects of vaccines always existed – even as early as in the 19th century with demonstrations ​against smallpox immunizations​. It’s a well-known human flaw: we fear the unknown.

But today, ​Anthropologist Heidi Larson​, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says we’re facing a dangerous situation. Nowadays, people see health care as a service rather than a right, and consider all treatment a choice. “Today, we are in the paradoxical situation of having highly effective vaccines, but doubting publics,” she says.

Experts all agree: For this vaccine to be truly effective, the public will have to become committed to help one another. ​In polls by​ Gallup​, the​ Kaiser Family Foundation​ and the Pew Research Center, the portion of people saying they are now likely to take the vaccine rose from about 50 percent this summer to more than 60 percent, and in one poll 73 percent, The New York Times​ writes.

If 73 percent of the U.S. population did take the vaccine, we could reach herd immunity.

And if this number appears out of reach, let us remember we have done this before. For measles, one of the most highly infectious viruses we know of, close to 95% of the population must be vaccinated to prevent an outbreak. And in most communities, we managed to reach that number.

Number of measles cases in the United States between 1938 and 2019. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So when can we expect a return to normal? In an interview with The Untitled Magazine, Lisa M. Lee, associate vice president for research and innovation at Virginia Tech, offered some answers. She explains, “what we know about the vaccine is that it prevents people from getting really sick. What we don’t know yet is whether it prevents people from getting the infection, getting infected by the virus.”

This difference is key as we consider a return to normal. Indeed, if those vaccines do protect people from getting infected with the virus, then we would only wait for at least 65 to 75 percent of the population to receive the vaccine to reach herd immunity. But until we get there, we will have to continue to practice social distancing and wear masks.

Herd Immunity vs Without Herd Immunity. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Graphic illustrates the difference between reaching herd immunity versus not having herd immunity. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The longer it takes for that 65 to 75 percent of the population to become immune from COVID-19, the further away a return to normalcy is.

While we can’t put an end date on this pandemic quite yet, some elements are important to keep in mind as we speculate on a timeline. Most of the coronavirus vaccines come in two doses – which are typically administered three to four weeks apart​. And for one-dose vaccines such as the Johnson & Johnson candidate, it will still take your body about ​29 days to build immunity against COVID-19.

The more we learn about this novel virus, the more questions come up. We will get back to relatively normal, but it’s going to be a while. The sooner we can do the things that we have control over – such as getting the vaccine and avoid transmitting the virus right now – the sooner we can get back to what feels like a normal life.

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