The last stage of purgatory will be getting vaccines to the general public. Some parts of the country may allow everyone to get the vaccine sooner than others. In 2009, says Moore, who was running Tennessee’s immunizations program at the time, demand for the swine-flu vaccine in priority groups varied across the state. Some vaccine providers had doses for priority groups sitting unused, while members of the general public were asking about shots. Moore let those providers begin giving the vaccine to anyone who asked. This dynamic is very likely to play out between cities and between states with the COVID-19 vaccine, where doses are currently being allocated by census population but demand may vary.
This decision is tough because it’s likely to be criticized either way. “Visualize the frustration … if Georgia and Tennessee and Alabama all have different groups being allowed to be vaccinated at different times. But if you don’t, if you try to make everyone in the whole country do these groups in lockstep, then you can imagine that that also is terribly unfair,” Moore says, if “there are lots of willing people who could be protected, and vaccine is being withheld.”
Vaccine hesitancy is, of course, also a more general concern across the country. But Americans’ willingness to take a COVID-19 vaccine has risen as data on the vaccines’ efficacy has come out, and experts expect it to keep rising if early vaccination goes well. Many people have said they are more comfortable waiting a few months to get the vaccine, which is in effect what will happen.
Eventually, our social lives can start getting back to normal. It won’t happen in a moment, but stepwise, in small ways and then larger ones. Omer says small gatherings like dinner parties and game nights might be safe if everyone in the group is vaccinated. School reopenings and mass gatherings will likely happen only when widespread vaccination—along with masks and social distancing through the winter and spring—pushes COVID-19 rates to low levels.
Public-health experts stress that vaccines work in tandem with other measures: The start of a vaccination campaign cannot be an excuse to abandon the measures that are working right now. Moore likens vaccines to another slice on a pile of Swiss cheese, where each slice is an intervention that is by itself imperfect (masks, social distancing, even vaccines) but they drastically reduce risk when stacked together. Rochelle Walensky, President-elect Biden’s pick for CDC director, made this analogy on Twitter: “If I have a cup of water, I can put out a stove fire. But I can’t put out a forest fire, even if that water is 100% potent. That’s why everyone must wear a mask. As a nation, we’ll recover faster if you give the vaccine less work to do when it’s ready.”
There will likely be many frustrating and imperfect things about the vaccine rollout in the next few months. But the goal is to get the country—and, really, the world—back to normal, and that happens not when you as an individual are vaccinated but when enough people all over are vaccinated. It might take longer than we like, but we get there together.