One shot is not enough: Researchers warn public may prolong pandemic by skipping second COVID vaccine

ITHACA, N.Y. — Are you among the millions of patients waiting to receive a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine? When your appointment day comes, a new study is urging people not to miss it. Researchers from Cornell University say lack of information about the importance of a second shot could end up prolonging the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, over 140 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. However, a Cornell survey of 1,000 adults in February reveals a worrying trend among those waiting for their follow-up shot.

When it comes to public knowledge about the vaccines, less than half believe the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccinations provide strong protection against the virus within two weeks of the second dose. One in five believed the vaccines will actually provide enough protection against COVID after just one dose. Over a third of respondents (36%) were unsure about the effectiveness of either vaccine.

Researchers find the problem isn’t just with the public, not enough people are getting the proper guidance from officials or facilities handling vaccinations. Among vaccinated respondents (19% of the poll), only half say they received information about the timing of vaccine protection. About the same number add they did not receive any guidance about mask-wearing of social distancing after their vaccinations.

“Many Americans, including many of those who have already received a first vaccine dose, remain confused about the timing of protection and the necessity of a second dose,” researchers say in a university release. “Moreover, a large proportion of vaccinees report being uninformed about CDC guidance regarding the need to continue to take prophylactic measures.”

Full vaccination provides the path to normalcy

Following new guidance on mask-wearing from the CDC, the end of the pandemic is truly in sight for fully vaccinated individuals. However, the CDC and the study stress the term fully vaccinated. This means a person who is two weeks removed from receiving their second COVID shot or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Unfortunately, researchers find nearly eight percent of Americans are not following through on both COVID doses. That’s over five million people missing their second Moderna or Pfizer vaccine appointment. Therefore, new CDC recommendations which finally put an end to mask-wearing in most situations will not apply to these patients.

Study authors add vaccine “attrition” is typically more common among minority racial and ethnic groups. Their survey finds Black and Latin respondents were significantly less likely to believe two vaccine doses provide strong virus protection.

“Failure to combat second-dose attrition among members of minority groups risks magnifying existing racial disparities in the virus’s human toll,” the team writes in their report.

Health professionals need to better educate the public

Researchers also discovered strong support for using face masks, even after vaccinations. More than 80 percent of the poll strongly agreed with this. The highest support for continued mask-wearing comes from those over 60 years-old, Blacks, and those already receiving the COVID vaccine. On a political level however, researchers find Republican respondents are strongly against using face masks after vaccination.

Despite their personal preferences, less than a third of vaccinated respondents received a warning that their risk of transmitting COVID is still unknown.

“These findings suggest that there is a real need – and opportunity – for the medical community to provide fuller guidance and greater contextual explanations to vaccinees about how life can change after vaccination as we gradually return to normalcy,” researchers say.

The team adds health officials need to improve education during a patient’s first vaccine dose to combat second-dose attrition.

“It really sunk in that there could be a problem with vaccine attrition even more so than overcoming hesitancy,” co-author Jillian Goldfarb explains. “We could end up prolonging the pandemic because people don’t follow through.”

“You can’t understand how this virus will continue to progress,” adds researcher Sarah Kreps, “unless you understand the behavior of the public that is receiving this vaccine.”

The study appears in the New England Journal of Medicine.