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COVID-19 herd immunity is the only path toward normalcy, expert panel says

Health experts answer questions about the COVID-19 vaccine's

Health experts answer questions about the COVID-19 vaccine’s potential side effects, immunity, passing the virus to others and more. Sign up for COVID-19 text alerts at newsday.com/text. Panelists include Miguel A. Saldivar, MD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, Stony Brook Medicine; and Dr. Bruce Polsky, Chairman of Medicine at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island.

Follow the herd.

When it comes to the coronavirus, throw that old advice about not being a follower straight out the window, because reaching so-called "herd immunity" is the only way for us to regain any semblance of normalcy, experts speaking at the latest Newsday Live webinar, "Health & COVID-19: 'I'm Vaccinated, Now What?'" said Wednesday.

That's because even if you've received both vaccine doses and are fully vaccinated, it remains unclear if you're fully protected against all strains of COVID-19 — or if you can spread the virus.

Even recipients who've been fully vaccinated still need to wear a mask, practice social distancing and follow other safety protocols, the webinar experts said.

"Complicated," is how Dr. Bruce Polsky, professor and chairman of the Department of Medicine at the NYU Long Island School of Medicine and NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island, described the current predicament.

"One of the issues is that we don't know how protective the current vaccines are against variant strains of the virus," Polsky said, adding: "It is still advisable to wear masks and to socially distance if you are together."

That's especially true, he said, if you're getting together with people outside of your own household.

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As Dr. Miguel A. Saldivar, an assistant clinical professor who specializes in infectious diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, said: "We are not yet completely certain that the vaccine protects against asymptomatic infection."

Based on the success of vaccines used to combat other diseases, like smallpox, Saldivar said there is reason to believe full protection might ultimately be in place. But, he said, at present there still is no definitive proof someone who is fully vaccainted cannot spread the virus — or can't catch a variant — and so you should err on the side of caution.

"We all want to return to a sense of normal," Saldivar said, "but we need to be patient here."

Polsky added: "When things change is when upwards of 75% of the population is vaccinated, when we've reached herd immunity. When, ultimately, enough of the population is protected, so the virus doesn't have any place to go … That's when things change."

Delaying that goal is that the two approved vaccines, from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are in scarce supply right now, though there's hope demand can be met by summer, the panelists said.

A third vaccine, from Johnson & Johnson, was deemed to offer protection against severe COVID-19 in a Food and Drug Administration analysis released Wednesday that sets the stage for a final decision on an emergency use authorization.

Until the supply increases enough to achieve herd immunity, Polsky and Saldivar said, even those who've been fully vaccinated should follow all suggested protocols.

After all, the doctors said, you never know when you might be in contact with someone who hasn't been fully vaccinated. Or when you might be exposed to a variant strain you or a loved one might not be protected against.

With AP

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