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Life after the COVID vaccine: The science behind why 'normal' can't start again right now

As Coloradans are getting vaccinated, health experts are reminding people COVID precautions are still critical.

DENVER — As of Feb. 3, more than 485,000 people in Colorado have gotten their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. About 3% of the population is fully vaccinated.

That does not mean these people can return to life as we knew it before 2020.

As Coloradans are getting vaccinated, local health experts are reminding people that COVID precautions are still critical. 

Reporter Anusha Roy spoke with two infectious disease specialists -- Dr. Michelle Barron from UCHealth and Dr. Jim Neid with the Medical Center of Aurora -- about why.

> Do you have a vaccine-related question or story idea? Email vaccine@9news.com

RELATED: 9NEWS Town Hall: Polis, state experts answer your vaccine questions

COVID Precautions

Whether a person is in-between doses right now or has already received both, health experts say following COVID-19 precautions is still important. Those include wearing masks, regularly washing your hands, social distancing, and limiting contact with people outside your home. 

"After the first dose of the vaccine, depending on which one you get, there is a little bit of a difference but you are not at the 95% range [of immunity]," said Barron. "You are somewhere between 50 to 70 percent potentially protected, which means you can get COVID in-between vaccines."  

Barron said it can take at least two weeks after the second dose to reach that 95% threshold vaccine manufacturers are aiming for. She also said to keep in mind, especially now, the number of unvaccinated people outnumbers those who have received the shot. 

"The masking and social distancing, we call that transmission control," she said. "There is some data out of the school of public health that suggests that if we lose even 10%, 80% to 70% transmission control, which we are already creeping down because I think people are feeling pretty good about having gotten the vaccine, the rates of hospitalizations double or triple."

Neid echoed her reasoning.

"It's so important for people to get vaccinated," he said. "The goal is to decrease the number of cases and more importantly hospitalizations and deaths. As those numbers decrease, the ability to start to open society will increase." 

In a statement to 9NEWS, the Colorado Dept. of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) wrote: 

"Current information suggests it is possible that someone who has been vaccinated against COVID-19 may still have a mild or asymptomatic infection or be able to spread the virus to others. It is important for those who have been vaccinated to continue taking precautions to mitigate the spread of the virus such as wearing masks, washing hands frequently, and maintaining social distancing while limiting contact with those outside of their household when possible."

What about the new COVID variants?

"That's a huge thing to think about. The variants, at least the ones that have been described, certainly spread more quickly and are more contagious. The vaccines will still probably protect you. But if you potentially, again continue the cycle of spread, obviously that will impact hospitalizations and downstream effects of that, as well," Barron told us.

"The vaccine may or may not protect you fully. Some of the early data suggest that the vaccines still work but they are not as robust. So instead of being 95%, maybe it's in the 60% range, which again is still amazing, but now we are dealing with a 40% threshold of you are going to get sick and spread it."

And according to Neid: "The more people vaccinated will very well likely prevent new mutants from occurring and creating more unanswered questions." 

What about herd immunity?

Both doctors said that is a moving target, with changing factors that can influence that number. 

"What threshold of herd immunity do you need? It's so variable. Like measles is so infectious and contagious that you need 95% of the population vaccinated against measles for you to not spread it in the community. Polio -- 80%. That's a big gap. So we don't necessarily know. I think they've been estimated probably 70 to 75 percent for COVID. I don't think we fully know," Barron said.

In an e-mail, the CDPHE wrote: 

"Based on work conducted in late January, our modeling team estimates that the community immunity level, sometimes known as herd immunity, in Colorado may be around 80%. Other national estimates have been closer to 70%."

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