COVID-19 vaccine may not keep you from getting, spreading the virus

It's still possible to spread the virus after being vaccinated, experts say.

KENNEWICK, Wash. — Do you know what the COVID-19 vaccine does? Americans have been celebrating the vaccine as a gamechanger in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. It’s been touted as a lifesaver but it is not a Get Out of Jail Free card.

All vaccines are designed to generate an immune response to protect people during future exposures. However, vaccine protection is more complicated than it seems.

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The newly developed and released COVID-19 vaccines are “symptom-reducing,” keeping those who receive the two shots safe from falling ill. Experts say we do not yet know if the vaccines block transmission of the virus.

“You’d rather have a vaccine that completely blocks infection rather than preventing symptoms,” said Dr. Joshua Schiffer, an infectious disease researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “It could save the lives of many people who have yet to get the vaccine, by protecting them indirectly.”

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Studies for the Moderna and Pfizer shots found they were 90%-95% effective in preventing disease. The designs of the trials, though, “only allow an imperfect estimate of whether the vaccines block infection or just symptoms,” Dr. Schiffer said.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the vaccine will protect you from getting sick by teaching your immune system how to recognize and fight the virus that causes COVID-19.

“The Pfizer vaccine is very effective at preventing symptomatic illness and severe disease,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health who also works as a medical analyst for CNN. “That means the vaccine appears to prevent people from getting sick enough that they develop symptoms, and very importantly, it prevents people from becoming so severely ill that they end up in the hospital.”

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But as we’ve learned over the past year, the virus can be spread by infected people who show no signs of sickness and/or don’t know they’re infected. Can someone who has gotten both shots still get and spread COVID-19?

“Here’s what the studies don’t yet show. They haven’t looked at whether the vaccine prevents someone from carrying COVID-19 and spreading it to others. It’s possible that someone could get the vaccine but could still be an asymptomatic carrier. They may not show symptoms, but they have the virus in their nasal passageway so that if they’re speaking, breathing, sneezing and so on, they can still transmit it to others,” Dr. Wen said.

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Getting inoculated does not mean you can stop wearing a mask and social distancing. The shots will probably keep you out of the hospital but may not keep you from putting someone else in the hospital (or spreading it to someone who might later get someone sick).

The bottom line: no one knows yet whether the vaccines will keep you from spreading the virus to others.

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Here are some additional facts about COVID-19 vaccines that you may not have known, from the CDC:

  1. A COVID-19 vaccine cannot make you sick with COVID-19. None of the U.S.-authorized COVID-19 vaccines contain the live virus that causes COVID-19.
  2. A COVID-19 vaccine will not cause you to test positive on a COVID-19 test for current infection.​
  3. You should get vaccinated even if you’ve already had COVID-19, since re-infection is possible and severe health risks are involved. The CDC is making this recommendation to governments.
  4. COVID-19 mRNA vaccines do not interact with or alter your DNA in any way.
  5. It is safe to get a COVID-19 vaccine if you plan to have a baby. Experts believe the shots are unlikely to pose a risk to a person trying to become pregnant in the short or long term:

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