Can You Get COVID After Getting Vaccinated? Here's What to Know Now About the Vaccines

An infectious diseases expert on if we should be worried about the COVID-19 variants, booster shots, side effects after the first dose and other questions about the vaccines

covid vaccine sticker
Michigan educator Karen Fleming, 47, shows off her vaccination sticker. Photo: Eric Seals/USA TODAY NETWORK/Sipa

Vaccine rollout is well on its way in the U.S., with nearly every state allowing anyone aged 16 and up to get their doses and more than 76.6 million Americans now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. After 14 months of the pandemic, an end finally seems within reach.

But as more people get their shots, questions have come up about everything from the new variants circulating through the country to if side effects after the first dose are a sign that a person has already had COVID-19.

Here, Dr. Reynold Panettieri, professor of medicine and a pulmonary physician at Rutgers University's Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, shares what people need to know now about COVID-19 and the vaccines.

Vaccine distribution has jumped up significantly in the last two months, but new COVID-19 cases are also on the rise — should we be concerned?

I think we're always concerned. I mean, we've really ramped things up, going to 3 to 4 million vaccine doses administered a day, which is exactly what we needed. But there's still a substantial number of individuals, a little less than 50%, that are not fully vaccinated. So we're going to see a little bit of a wobble, but I think as the months go by, cases should drop down remarkably. And the recommendations from the CDC are to continue wearing a mask and to be cautious, keep good personal hygiene and washing hands.

Are the faster-spreading variants going to halt the U.S.'s progress?

The variants are a problem, but as long as people are getting vaccinated and the vaccines engender some immunity, then the likelihood for severe disease will fall off. Even though the variants do seemingly have some diminished immunity with the vaccines, the overall news is that they're still effective.

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If cases drop off in the summer, will COVID-19 come back when the weather cools down in the fall? Will we need booster shots?

Well, we're hoping now with a lot of people vaccinated. There's fewer hosts, and with fewer hosts there's less transmission. But it wouldn't surprise me if we need a booster shot, and most of the vaccine companies are already planning studies into them.

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There's a theory that if you have side effects after your first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, that means you already had COVID-19 because your body recognized the virus proteins — is there any truth to that?

That's difficult to prove. When you give any vaccine to a variety of people, some will have substantial side effects while others will feel fine. It all depends on your individual immune system.

Some people dealing with long-haul COVID-19 have also said that they started feeling better after their inoculations — could that help sufferers?

That has come out in some of the medical literature, and it's a really interesting phenomenon. We don't yet understand why that's the case, but what one could suggest is that there's an underlying, ongoing, low level infection, and that boost of your immune system wipes out the ongoing infection. That's a hypothesis though, and more research is needed.

There's been reports of people getting COVID-19 once they're fully vaccinated, two weeks after their second dose. Is that a concern?

The vaccines are not 100% effective in all individuals. Most people will mount antibody responses and then there are others whose immune systems do not respond. There's some people who could be immunocompromised, for example, and don't generate enough. That's why the CDC is still suggesting wearing masks and being cautious. But even if vaccinated people do get sick, it's typically a milder illness, and they're at a much lower risk of death.

Do you expect kids to be able to get vaccinated soon?

I think it's going to happen very quickly. The safety studies have demonstrated that the vaccines are highly effective in kids, so my sense is they will start to get vaccinated in the next 60 to 90 days.

If parents are vaccinated but kids aren't, can they travel?

Yes, but with moderation. We need to be cautious about going to places where there's still a lot of COVID-19 and the potential for more variants could still occur.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from the CDC, WHO andlocal public health departments.PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, clickhere.

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