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How the Coronavirus vaccine works, and why immunized people still need to ‘mask up’

Updated: Dec. 16, 2020 at 7:09 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Though it will be months before anyone who wants a vaccine can get a shot, doctors are already telling patients they’ll need to continue wearing a mask after they’ve been immunized.

The COVID-19 inoculation is a relatively new type of vaccine, containing a genetic instructor, called mRNA, that teaches the body how to produce proteins that look like the coronavirus.

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“Your body sees that spike protein as an invader and says, ‘Oh, no. We cannot have this invader here,’” Baton Rouge General infectious disease expert Connie DeLeo said. “So, it then turns around makes antibodies.”

It usually takes two weeks for antibodies to develop, meaning a vaccine is not immediately effective. Once the antibodies are formed, they’ll fight the dummy protein in a sort of practice run.

“Think of it as a training class designed to train the immune system,” Our Lady of the Lake’s Dr. Theron McCormick said. “In some cases, those antibodies need more than one class, so they’ll need a second vaccine.”

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“On down the line, if you actually get exposed to COVID, it looks the same. It’s not the Coronavirus, but it looks like the protein on that virus and your body says, ‘Hey, I’ve seen this before. I don’t like this. I’m going to fight this,” DeLeo said.

A vaccinated person’s body will know the virus’s weak points, allowing it to stifle an infection before it produces serious symptoms.

“We’re trying to train our bodies to be ready and fight it off,” McCormick said. “They’ll say, ‘Look, we’re going to be ready for you now. You’re not going to cause significant problems. I may have the sniffles, some increase in body temperature, but ultimately I will shake this off.’”

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A vaccine can prevent sickness, though doctors say it probably cannot prevent infection. That means some inoculated people will still be able to spread the disease.

Doctors say it’s important for vaccinated people to continue practicing mitigation measures like mask-wearing until most people’s immune systems are capable of fighting the disease. This is referred to as ‘Herd Immunity,’ where 70 percent of the population has developed antibodies through infection or vaccination,

Doctors expect to reach that point in Fall 2021.

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