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A COVID-19 vaccine, which is being given out locally to health care workers and at nursing homes.

In the last few weeks, with collectively intense and mixed emotions, we closed the book on an extraordinary year that saw humanity across the globe united in the still-evolving public health crisis known as the COVID-19 pandemic.

We also welcomed the start of 2021 with the promising first phase of COVID-19 vaccine dissemination around the world, including here in Northeast Pennsylvania at Wright Center for Community Health practices. We have gratefully served as responsible stewards of our community’s first doses of the Moderna vaccine, administering it to thousands of essential health care personnel within our own organization and throughout our greater community so far this month.

As one of the humble first recipients of this marvel of modern medicine, I share with you my perspective that the vaccine offers more than just 95% efficacy in protecting those who are personally inoculated — it also offers us the inspiring future promise of herd immunity, which will be necessary to safely and joyfully reclaim our worthwhile and deeply missed traditional ways of life.

Our roadmap to effective vaccination of the American public and its positive impact have been emerging. The challenges of still providing necessary COVID-19 testing, treatment, quarantining and contact-tracing strains the capacity of our health care systems to go full-speed with the CDC’s “Vaccinate with Confidence” campaign, but this game-changing effort is thankfully launched, well underway, and gaining momentum.

Right now, we remain in Phase 1A of the national timetable on vaccine distribution, meaning The Wright Center can schedule and provide COVID-19 vaccines to health care personnel only in line with state and federal guidelines. As much as anyone, I look forward to the day when we can begin to inoculate the broader general public with the COVID vaccine to accelerate our journey to local, national and even global herd immunity. But for now, we must patiently and hopefully wait until the government’s public health guidance regarding distribution reaches that next phase.

While the COVID-19 vaccines are undeniably an essential weapon against the coronavirus that can generate herd immunity over time, we must all remember that this does not justify complacency when it comes to observing the safety guidelines we have all become so accustomed to this past year. Let’s reflect on what we all can do to remain as safe as possible.

Stay masked. Whether you’ve grown comfortable with wearing a face covering by now or are more sick of it than ever, mask wearing remains a critical tactic to slowing the spread of COVID. Even if you are not considered high-risk, are feeling fine and have observed other safety protocols, it is not safe to assume that you are COVID-free. This is also true for successfully vaccinated individuals: We lack evidence to ensure that this group cannot be carriers of the virus or even be susceptible to mild symptoms of infection. For your own health, and especially that of the people you come into contact with in your families and in the public who may be much more susceptible, please keep your mask on and covering your nose.

Stay six feet apart. We’ve survived an unorthodox holiday season unlike one any of us ever pictured, with family gatherings held over Zoom instead of in-person, and traditional parties, milestone events and other celebrations altogether canceled. We grieve lost rituals. Social distancing hasn’t been easy and isolation can be so difficult, especially as we move deeper into winter, but this precaution must be observed as much as possible to ensure better containment of the virus into 2021.

Keep washing your hands. The bitterness of winter can wreak havoc on our skin even in a “normal” year, and dryness and itchiness have become bothersome side effects of constant hand-washing. But I urge you to remain vigilant about maintaining this essential hygiene practice, which is a great line of defense against the spread of all kinds of germs. Invest in replenishing hand cream, and keep up the good work.

Learn more about the COVID vaccine and the CDC’s national “Vaccinate with Confidence” Campaign. Now is the time to do your research and read up on the vaccines developed by manufacturers like Moderna, Pfizer and more.

As a vested, community-based pediatrician and internal medicine physician and medical educator, I am a passionate proponent of vaccines. I can bend your ear for hours about the positive outcomes achieved when individual patients, families and communities invest in their health by getting vaccinated and promoting wide-scale inoculation against vaccine-preventable diseases whenever possible.

It is up to each individual to learn more and make informed choices about their health so that when the time comes, they will feel more confident about scheduling that crucial vaccination-related appointment. Please don’t hesitate; do your homework on the COVID-19 vaccines NOW, so you will be ready when it’s your turn.

It may be some time before we return to something like the “normal” we knew before the pandemic, but the future looks brighter than ever thanks to the addition of the COVID vaccine to our arsenal against this global threat.

There will be silver linings of the dark COVID-19 cloud, like the advancement of virtual technology, public health infrastructure and reporting and telehealth. We are certainly all in this together for the long haul, so for now, stay focused on what you can control to do your part, and we will all be safer and healthier for it.

Linda Thomas-Hemak, M.D., a primary care physician triple board-certified in pediatrics, internal medicine and addiction medicine, leads The Wright Center for Community Health as CEO and serves as President of The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education. She lives with her family and practices primary care in Jermyn. Send your medical questions to news@thewrightcenter.org.