By Dr. Gretchen Arnoczy
FirstHealth infectious diseases physician

Since March 2020, we’ve all had visions of the life we want back. Personally, I imagine casting off my mask and running towards a big family get together to just start hugging.

I’m from a big extended family. As in 29 first cousins big. If you ever go to one of my extended family’s enormous get-togethers it’s a giant hug fest where everyone brings too much food, a whole bunch of kids and every embarrassing story from our collective childhoods to tease each other about. I LOVE a good gathering, and I can’t wait to get back to them.

Over the past few months, we got really great news about the COVID-19 vaccines. The two approved COVID-19 vaccines showed 95 percent efficacy, and the safety data appeared outstanding. A lot of us here at FirstHealth of the Carolinas proudly showed off our vaccine selfies and started getting excited about the future.

I’m a frontline health care worker who has been seeing COVID-19 patients regularly at my hospital. I’m now more than two weeks from my second COVID-19 vaccine. Can I throw my mask away and start planning that big family reunion?

Not quite yet.

I want to be completely honest. I’m really hoping this is a “YET” situation. Anyone who tells you that masking and distancing is the “new forever normal” doesn’t understand diseases, history or human nature. This isn’t forever. I am expecting these vaccines to be one of the great achievements of the 21st century. COVID-19 may permanently change some aspects of our world, but I’m hoping to show off my lopsided smile and occasionally awkward hug again soon.

The vaccine studies were done as fast as safely possible. They wanted to prove that the vaccine can reduce symptomatic illness and death. They did that, and they did it FAST. This was fantastic work.

The next part is a little trickier. We know that some people who get COVID-19 don’t have symptoms, or have very mild symptoms, but they can still spread it to people who are vulnerable. This is the reason for the mask mandates, the social distancing, the isolation. This is the reason to keep seemingly healthy people away from each other. It is possible to give this infection to someone you love without feeling sick. So.

Do vaccinated people do that? THIS is the big question. We need to prove that getting the vaccine keeps you from getting the infection at all. We have to prove that getting the vaccine keeps people from spreading it.

We want to make sure that vaccinated people aren’t just getting very mild or asymptomatic cases but still spreading the disease. We need to prove that the vaccine truly halts transmission, not just severe illness. That data is being collected. I don’t think we’ll have to wait long.

In the meantime, we are all hoping that case numbers and hospitalizations will go down as vaccinations go up. I’m strongly expecting GOOD NEWS. I’m strongly expecting these vaccines to stop not just disease but transmission. But until we see the data, until the numbers are better, we’re going to play it safe. Keep practicing the three Ws;  wearing a mask, washing your hands and waiting 6 feet apart.

Early data from the vaccine studies looked good. In the Pfizer study, some people got COVID-19 between shot #1 and shot #2 (before they had full protection). The people who got a placebo had much more virus in their nose than the people in the vaccine group. That’s encouraging. I bet we’re going to find that these vaccines halt transmission. We just need to prove it first.

Gretchen Arnoczy, M.D., is an infectious diseases physician who has helped lead FirstHealth’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.