Long seen as the ray of hope on the horizon, the COVID-19 vaccine is now available to all Pennsylvanians over age 16. Medical experts agree that the vaccine is a major step in overcoming the coronavirus pandemic; however, the shots don’t instantly return individuals to pre-pandemic normal.

Dr. David Gasperack is a family medicine physician for WellSpan Health in Lancaster County as well as the vice president and regional medical director supporting WellSpan’s eastern region, which includes Lancaster and Lebanon counties. He says there are five reasons why individuals should mask up even after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine:

Reason #1: Vaccinated individuals may still be able to spread the virus to others.
Gasperack says this is the biggest reason for continuing masking after getting vaccinated. It is still unknown whether the vaccines prevent individuals from passing COVID-19 to other people, but so far there is no definitive evidence to suggest that vaccines prevent people from passing on the virus. The vaccines effectively prevent people from getting seriously ill from COVID-19, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they prevent people from unknowingly contracting the virus and giving it to others, Gasperack explains.

Reason #2: The vaccines aren’t 100% effective at preventing COVID-19.
With efficacy against severe disease ranging from about 85-95% for the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, there’s still a chance vaccinated individuals could contract COVID-19. “Even with the vaccine, there still is a degree of being not protected,” says Gasperack. As the world works to get the coronavirus under control, masking and other safety steps can help decrease the spread of the virus.

Reason #3: The vaccines take time to fully kick in.
Maximum immunity comes about two weeks after receiving the final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine (one dose of the J&J vaccine and two of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines). In the case of the Moderna vaccine, which has a recommended four-week window between the two shots, individuals only receive maximum protection six weeks after they receive their first injection.

Reason #4: Masks help protect people with weakened immune systems.
Individuals with weakened immune systems — for example, patients undergoing cancer treatments — might not be able to get the vaccine, or it might not be as effective at protecting them from serious COVID-19 cases, says Gasperack.

Reason #5: Vaccines might not be as effective against variants.
Gasperack explains that the current COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the known variants present in the U.S. right now, but experts don’t know how they’ll work against possible future mutations of the virus. “The only way to protect with certainty against any potential variants is masking and social distancing,” he says.

Dr. Cybele Pacheco, medical director for primary care in Mifflin and Juniata counties with Geisinger, points out that the time for mask-wearing and social distancing isn’t over yet, as only about a third of Pennsylvania’s population has been fully vaccinated so far.

As for when masking and social distancing can come to an end, Gasperack says it will be important to follow metrics like the number of positive cases and hospitalizations in the community. Along with wearing masks and practicing all the other COVID-19 safety procedures that have become commonplace over the past year, vaccines can help reduce those numbers.

“The number of positive cases in a community, the incidence of virus in the community, the number of hospitalizations…we’re going to need to start seeing all of those on a steady downward trajectory,” says Gasperack. The exact numerical goals have not yet been determined, but those will be the statists experts will be watching, he says.

Many have wondered, why bother getting vaccinated if life still isn’t going to get back to normal afterward? Gasperack sympathizes with this perspective. “We push to get the vaccine, we push to get the vaccine, people get it, and then seemingly nothing changes,” he says.

However, the vaccine will help to ultimately improve those metrics that healthcare professionals are watching, says Gasperack, and hopefully enable everyone to return to some kind of normalcy. Pacheco says that the protection offered by the vaccines can help people get back to work and back to school and back to socializing safely.

“If you’re getting vaccinated, and friends and family are getting vaccinated, you can slowly start to integrate again in really positive ways, but I think the vaccine is really that first step to being able to do that,” says Pacheco. She says that when planning gatherings with her family, the first thing they discuss is whether they’ve all been vaccinated.

Many have been struggling with COVID-19 fatigue, and the continuation of masking and distancing can seem daunting. “I get it. I’ve lived it, we’ve all lived it. We are tired, we’re tired of all of it,” says Gasperack. But he urges people not to give up on safety precautions prematurely.

Looking for more information about COVID-19 vaccines in Pennsylvania? Visit abc27.com/vaccine.

Jumping back to “normal” life too soon would be like getting tackled on the five-yard line in a football game, says Gasperack. “We’re almost there. We’ve been waiting for this time to get a vaccine and have enough supply that we could get it out to the population,” he says. “We’re so close to being at that point where I think we start to return to normal.”

Of course, post-pandemic normal may not look the same as pre-pandemic normal. It is likely that additional shots will be needed to prevent future COVID-19 surges. And Pacheco says masks are probably here to stay for a while.