Pre-pandemic "normalcy" still a long way away despite rise in vaccination rates

The United States has administered at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose to about 12% of the population, equaling just under 40 million people. Of that group, about 15 million have completed the multi-dose regimen.

Health officials continue to state it will take several months for enough vaccines to become available to the general public, as they stress the continued importance of the 3 Ws. It's advice that will only continue, even as more people become vaccinated.

"Vaccinations are important, but in no way can it be the only measure we rely on in the coming weeks and months. We're still in the US, still months away from reaching herd immunity through vaccinations. And even in Israel, which is even further ahead of us, they're not letting loose on all the other restrictions and interventions from a public health perspective," said Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, the founding director of the Duke Global Health Initiative.

Israel is leading the world in vaccination rates, administering at least one dose to more than 40% of its population, and both shots to more than 25%. Despite those successes, the country still has strict safety measures in place.

"We had a lockdown for about a month that we just got out of last Sunday. And they opened offices up, so people could go to work up to a certain capacity," said Shir Ibgui, an American who lives in Israel.

Mask-wearing is mandatory, dine-in seating banned and tight capacity limits remain in place.

"I would never see someone in a store not wearing a mask. They'll find you on the street if you're not wearing a mask. They're very strict about that, versus when I was in New York in October, I couldn't believe that people were just walking freely without masks," said Chelsea Pincus, a fellow American who also lives in Israel.

"When I traveled (back to the US), I was expecting airport officials to ask us where we were staying if we were going to quarantine. There was nothing about quarantine at all, nobody asked us any questions. We were just let go. I went to get a COVID test because I didn't want to go home without a negative result before seeing my parents. But it was just crazy to travel and have that experience and land and nobody does anything, whereas if you travel and come back to Israel - the number of stops you need to make, the number of forms you need to fill out, where you're quarantining, what your phone number is, etc. They really track who comes in, who comes out, where you're staying, and making sure you don't leave your quarantine area," said Ibgui.

Israeli officials have announced plans to ease some restrictions, and is also discussing allowing expanded access to areas solely for people who have been vaccinated.

Initial vaccination data in Israel has been promising, with the country reporting sharp drops in new cases and serious illnesses among vaccinated individuals.
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Despite having a smaller population, Israel has administered more than three times the number of shots as North Carolina.

"Those kinds of results are incredibly powerful to show that in the right setting that these things can be made, these interventions can be done in a way that will provide benefit to the population. There's no doubt about that," said Dr. Tony Moody of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.

While doctors hope the successful rollout will help convince people to get the vaccine, they're quick to add that other preventative efforts are necessary.

"Those kinds of results are incredibly powerful to show that in the right setting that these things can be made, these interventions can be done in a way that will provide benefit to the population. There's no doubt about that.

"The risk that we have here in the US is that we get complacent because we're rolling out vaccinations and forget that it's all the other things in terms of distancing, in terms of avoiding public places where possible, the masks all the time, all those things will be required for months to come," said Dr. Udayakumar.

The confirmed presence of new variants also highlights the need to wear masks, socially distance and frequently wash hands.

"We know that this is a very transmissible virus. Obviously, there's a lot of concern about new variants, and their transmissibility and will that decreased efficacy because they're more transmissible? And at this point we just don't know what the answer is until we get more data," said Dr. Moody.

Like Dr. Udayakumar, Dr. Moody shared that other steps outside vaccinations will be needed to stop the spread.

"The truth is, the fastest way for us to get out of this pandemic is a combination of vaccination and continued vigilance of masking and distancing and hand washing. It is sort of the classic problem of having a leaky boat. We want to plug the holes and we want to try and get the water out of the boat as fast as we can. The vaccine is going to plug the holes, but if we're not bailing and doing all the other things necessary to keep us safe, we're actually going against the whole point of the vaccination. If we see some people are vaccinated and suddenly we're relaxing our guard, it's just going to make the challenge that much harder. So it's not a fun message to deliver. It's not one that people want to hear, but the reality is the quickest way to get out of this is to be vigilant now, put in the effort now, and then we can get back to normal much faster," said Dr. Moody.

Despite having a slightly smaller population, Israel has administered more than triple the number of shots as North Carolina has; through Monday, the country of about nine million people had administered more shots than any single US state.
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