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What’s it mean to get that vaccine

Both vaccines now in wide use are powerfully effective, but public health experts urge all Americans to abide by the rules of wearing masks and social distancing until herd immunity is achieved.

Rafi Peterson of Communities Partnering 4 Peace, receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Daley College in Chicago on Jan 14, 2021.
Rafi Peterson of Communities Partnering 4 Peace, receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Daley College in Chicago on Jan 14.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia | Sun-Times

Perhaps you’re one of the 6.4 million fortunate Americans who, as of Thursday, has received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“So what now?,” you might be wondering. “Can I go back to my normal life — take a plane trip, visit family and friends — without worrying?”

The good news is that both vaccines now in wide use are 94% to 95% effective against the coronavirus. That plane trip or visit to the grocery store definitely is safer for you. It is not nearly so out of line.

But not so fast, say experts across the board. Move forward only with an abundance of caution. Continue to wear a mask, says the Centers for Disease Control. Maintain social distancing. Wash your hands every bit as frequently. You might even want to double up the mask.

And our advice is to follow their advice, as always, frustrating as that is.

The overwhelming majority of Americans have yet to receive even their first vaccine shot and are still unprotected. Scientists are not certain whether those who’ve been vaccinated no longer can transmit the virus. And more easily transmissible variants of the coronavirus are beginning to emerge. It’s unclear how much protection the current vaccines provide against these new mutations, though the results of early investigations are encouraging.

“I don’t think we have a free pass for that right now,” White House advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told National Public Radio recently, explaining why he’s still not comfortable with visiting his grown daughters even after receiving the vaccine. “When you get vaccinated, you are protected 94% to 95% against clinical disease. But we’re not sure if you’re actually protected against asymptomatic infection. And that’s the reason why we want to be careful and continue to wear a mask.”

Looking for herd immunity

About 1.3 million Americans a day are getting the COVID-19 vaccine, which means it will take many months more before enough Americans are vaccinated to achieve what scientists call “herd immunity” — that level of population-wide immunity at which we all become reasonably safe. Scientists now estimate that, because of the new variants, about 80% to 85% of the population must be vaccinated to reach that goal.

Only then can life really get back to normal.

The obvious message here is that everyone who can get the shot should, as promptly as possible, and it’s encouraging that the Biden administration is acting aggressively on this front after months of failure by the previous administration.

Reaching communities of color

As the vaccine continues to become available, the new administration has much work to do to ensure that African Americans and Latinos, who are at higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, get their shots. The data is incomplete, but shows an alarming trend: African Americans and Latinos lag far behind whites in vaccination rates.

Nationwide, 5% of vaccines have gone to African Americans and 11% to Latinos, while 60% have gone to whites, according to CDC data.

Chicago’s numbers show more equity, but the racial disparity still is stark. Black Chicagoans make up just 15% of those who have been vaccinated citywide, while Latinos account for 17% and whites more than 50%.

City Hall is targeting 15 South Side and West Side communities for a much-needed outreach blitz to encourage people of color to get the vaccine.

Undoubtedly, more vaccine supply is needed, everywhere, as quickly as doses can be produced and shipped. But even so, “we should not be seeing the disparities we’re seeing already,” Dr. Monica Peek, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, told us, noting that the disparity is evident even among health care workers who have ready access to the shots.

“We have a very steep hill to climb,” Peek said. “What people are really concerned about is, how is it possible to get a vaccine so soon? Were there corners that were cut?”

People can be convinced

The good news, she notes, is that the right message works. The key to persuasion, health officials have found, is to respect a person’s hesitancy to get the vaccine, stress that the vaccine is overwhelmingly safe and show the science that backs that message up.

Trusted community leaders could be trained to have those conversations, Peek said, and the city’s outreach should make use of “people, spaces and places” that folks trust to deliver the message, such as religious leaders, social service workers and even food pantry workers.

America has a long way to go to beat back this virus in every community.

We can do it.

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