SALT LAKE CITY — With all the talk this week of a COVID-19 vaccine drawing closer to distribution, many are wondering how long it'll take before restrictions and mask mandates fade into the past.
However, doctors are saying the public needs to prepare to keep their masks on long term. Even after a vaccine reaches the point of widespread distribution, according to physicians, it won't immediately snap society back to pre-COVID times.
A COVID-19 vaccine has been dubbed the "light at the end of the tunnel" by physicians, but that doesn't mean we're emerging from that tunnel after said vaccine becomes available.
"This concept of saying, 'When is the vaccine going to be available for everybody?' Like, 'Oh good, it comes out in July? Good! We're done, we don't have to do anything else! We'll get the vaccine!' It's not quite like that," explained Dr. Todd Vento, Intermountain Healthcare infectious disease physician.
It doesn't mean people stop wearing masks, he indicated, or begin to gather by the thousands or that restaurants can return to normal capacities.
It also might not mean that schools can stop flip-flopping between in-person and online learning as COVID-19 cases wax and wane.
Dr. Vento described how there are several factors that come into play after Utahns line up for their COVID-19 shot.
For one-- there's the time it takes for the vaccine to take effect after the expected July timeline for widespread distribution in Utah.
"You're going to have to get two shots over a three or four-week period-- so there's another month," he said, indicating that it would be August before people get their second dose. "Then you've got to wait a week or so to get immunity-- another week. But, at the same time, you're still waiting for everyone to get it."
Loosening restrictions will also depend on how effective the vaccine is, and Dr. Vento talked about how they'll be watching what case rates look like in the community at that time.
Depending on how effective the vaccine is, how long it takes to get people vaccinated, and how long the vaccine lasts-- he relayed it's hard to tell exactly when the public might see a progression away from mask mandates and social distance guidelines.
Dr. Vento said they'll have to see if COVID-19 becomes like the flu where we have a "COVID season" every year and need yearly vaccinations against it.
At least for the coming year, Dr. Vento explained it'll likely be a slow process to pull back from the measures currently in place.
The "new normal" of masks and social distancing that defined 2020, could very well define most of 2021.
"It's not the end of the road," he said. "We have to still gradually transition to get to that point of having more widespread of immunity from a vaccine."