BOSTON — Hospitals around the country are giving the first coronavirus vaccines, but instead of celebrating a hopeful development, medical experts fear people will let down their guards just as COVID-19 cases and deaths surge.
Massachusetts received its first allocation of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Monday — about 60,000 doses — and hospitals have started giving shots to frontline health care workers and others in high-risk groups. The Baker administration expects to get at least 300,000 doses of the two-dose vaccine by the end of the year.
Another vaccine, produced by Cambridge-based Moderna, could be approved for distribution by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration next week.
"No vaccine is 100% effective, and this isn't either," Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director of the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the state Department of Public Health, said during a forum earlier this week.
Madoff said it's unclear how soon after a second vaccination people develop an immunity to the coronavirus or aren't able to spread it to others.
In the meantime, he said, people should continue to wear masks and practice social distancing.
"I would advise people to continue taking precautions even after getting vaccinated, and not assume anything about their own immunity, their ability to get the virus and transmit it," Madoff said.
Studies of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines show both to be more than 95% effective, but medical experts caution that a segment of the population will still be vulnerable.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine doesn't mean people should drop "normal, standard public health measures."
He said people shouldn't expect life to return to normal until the second half of 2021, possibly even longer.
"Only when you get the level of infection in society so low that it's no longer a public health threat can you then think about the possibility of pulling back on public health measures," he told MSNBC.
President-elect Joe Biden has said he will ask state and municipal leaders to implement mask mandates and other precautions to control the virus's spread.
Nationally, the death toll from COVID-19 has now surpassed 300,000, while nearly 17 million have been infected with the virus. Massachusetts has reported more than 287,000 COVID-19 cases and 11,190 deaths as of Tuesday.
"We're in the absolute worst part of the pandemic right now," said Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School for Public Health.
Koh said it is essential that state and local governments keep restrictions in place to prevent further spread of the virus as the vaccines are rolled out.
"We need to keep our guard up and continue to be vigilant," he said. "The nation is drowning in rising pools of infection, and prevention is the only way to turn off the faucet."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.