by Jake O'Shea, MD, FACEP, chief medical officer for HCA Healthcare Capital Division

Do I still have to social distance and wear a mask after getting a COVID-19 vaccine?

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has authorized three safe and highly effective COVID-19 vaccines. That’s great news, but don’t toss your face masks or start planning a large gathering just yet. We still need to remain vigilant in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Here’s why:

  • The vaccines don’t provide immediate protection
  • Even people who have been vaccinated may be at risk for COVID-19
  • If someone who has been vaccinated gets COVID-19, they may spread it to other people

We asked Jake O’Shea, MD, FACEP, chief medical officer for HCA Healthcare Capital Division, to talk about what people can do to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 after being vaccinated.

Waiting for the vaccine to “kick in”

One reason to keep wearing a mask and practice social distancing is that COVID-19 vaccines don’t take effect immediately. “COVID vaccines provide maximum protection about two weeks after the last shot,” Dr. O’Shea says. “During those two weeks, you are still at risk for infection.”

Vaccines are not 100% effective in preventing COVID-19

The three vaccines authorized for emergency use are highly effective in preventing COVID-19 altogether and in preventing moderate to severe cases. But none are 100% effective, which means you could still get the disease even after you get the vaccine.

“More research is needed to determine whether vaccinated individuals who get the virus could still transmit it to others,” Dr. O’Shea says. “Until we know, and until more of the population is vaccinated, we need to follow CDC guidelines.”

These guidelines include:

  • Wear a mask over your nose and mouth
  • Stay at least 6 feet away from others
  • Avoid crowds
  • Avoid poorly ventilated spaces
  • Wash your hands often

Small groups of fully vaccinated individuals who are two weeks past their final dose of vaccine can remove their masks around each other in private spaces.

When can we start going “back to normal”? 

Dr. O’Shea is reluctant to make any predictions about when life will return to normal because so much is dependent on human behavior. But he is encouraged by the impact vaccines already are having on our communities.

“As vaccination rates rise and people continue to follow social distancing guidelines, we are seeing the number of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths drop nationwide,” he explains. “Here at HCA Healthcare Capital Division, in the two months since our teams received their vaccinations, employee sick days related to COVID-19 dropped tremendously. It’s a ray of hope that we are on making progress in our efforts to end the pandemic.”

Learn more about COVID-19 vaccines

Dr. O’Shea encourages people to turn to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration websites for reliable information about the vaccine and COVID-19 prevention guidelines.