WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — If you’re hoping the arrival of a coronavirus vaccine means you’ll be able to put away your mask, the experts warn we’re not to that finish line quiet yet.
It could take several months — probably well into 2021 — before things get back to something close to normal in the U.S. and Americans can once again go to the movies, cheer at an NBA game or give Grandma a hug.
The first, limited shipments of the vaccine would mark just the beginning of what could be a long and messy road toward the end of the pandemic that has upended life and killed more than a quarter-million people in the U.S.
Many health experts say you may need to wear a mask for another year.
“I think the news is encouraging, but it is a ways away, between proving that the vaccine would work and getting it authorized and being able to deliver it to enough people that it makes a difference,” said Dr. Patrick Kachur, a professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, in an interview with NBC’s Today Show. “I’m thinking that hopefully by next winter we’ll have a decent level of coverage in the general population that we can make that happen.”
Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, agrees with that assessment and says virus cases need to plunge before we can consider saying goodbye to masks.
“I think we are not going to be wearing masks any less anytime soon if people are going to continue to behave the way they’re currently behaving,” Kraft told the Today Show. “I would say we have at least another year at the rate we’re going.”
This week, AstraZeneca became the third vaccine maker to say early data indicates its shots are highly effective. Pfizer last week asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorization to begin distributing its vaccine, and Moderna is expected to do the same any day. Federal officials say the first doses will ship within a day of authorization.
But most people will probably have to wait months for shots to become widely available. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines also each require two doses, meaning people will have to go back for a second shot after three and four weeks, respectively, to get the full protection.
Moncef Slaoui, head of the U.S. vaccine development effort, said on CNN on Sunday that early data on the Pfizer and Moderna shots suggest about 70% of the population would need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity — a milestone he said is likely to happen in May.
But along the way, experts say the logistical challenges of the biggest vaccination campaign in U.S. history and public fear and misinformation could hinder the effort and kick the end of the pandemic further down the road.
“It’s going to be a slow process and it’s going to be a process with ups and downs, like we’ve seen already,” said Dr. Bill Moss, an infectious-disease expert at Johns Hopkins University.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.