What the COVID-19 Vaccine Means for the Fitness Industry

    The vaccine is key to returning the world to business as usual, but the effect will not be immediate. We will likely be dealing with COVID-19 restrictions, protocols, and effects throughout 2021.

    Within weeks of the emergence of COVID-19, scientists had already begun work on developing a vaccine. By fall, both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccines were leading the race, and in November both had reported their vaccines were over 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 infection in phase 3 clinical trials.

    In December, health authorities in several countries approved or provided emergency authorization for use of these vaccines, and healthcare workers and long-term care residents received the first vaccines. As of January 8, 2021, three vaccines are approved for use in certain countries/regions:

    • Pfizer-BioNTech
    • Moderna
    • Oxford-AstraZeneca

    All three vaccines are very similar, and leverage similar technology to proffer immunity, ultimately teaching the body how to produce, recognize, and destroy spike proteins. Coronavirus is encased in spike proteins that help it latch onto the body’s cells. Following vaccine-induced immunity, your immune system can recognize and neutralize these spike proteins, preventing infection.

    Pfizer’s vaccine is provided in two doses three weeks apart and must be stored in very cold temperatures, while the Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines are approved for two doses four weeks apart, and can be stored at more typical freezer and refrigerator temperatures. As of this writing, at least one of these three vaccines are available for regular or emergency use in Canada, the U.S., E.U., and U.K., India, Argentina, Israel, Switzerland, Kuwait, Bahrain, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Chile, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, and Mexico. You can check The New York Times vaccine tracker for updates.

    Vaccine Timeline

    In most places where the vaccine is available, healthcare workers and long-term care residents began receiving their first dose in mid-December, and by January people over 65 and first responders were also receiving vaccines, though rollout phases will differ by country and region.

    Vaccine distribution is rolling out in phases, which will differ depending on region. Typically, healthcare workers, high-risk individuals, older adults, and essential workers are prioritized ahead of the general public. Depending on vaccine availability and rollout logistics, the vaccines may be available to everyone by late spring or early summer. Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, said in December he anticipates if 75-80% of people can be vaccinated by the summer, herd immunity would be achieved in the fall and some level of normalcy may return at the end of 2021.

    While individual countries may reach herd immunity on a similar timeline, the WHO does not expect worldwide herd immunity in 2021.

    Reaching herd immunity is key for returning to normalcy—if only 40-50% of people receive a vaccine in that same timeline, it will take much longer for normal activities to resume. Vaccine delays could result from a number of factors, including shortages, distribution logistics, or vaccine hesitancy.

    It is important to remember that immunity from the vaccine is not conferred immediately. This is true for most vaccines, but because we get them when we’re young and the population is already at herd immunity for those diseases, it’s not a concern. Since the COVID-19 vaccines require two doses given several weeks apart, and immunity is conferred two weeks after the second dose, it can take up to six weeks between the first dose and immunity.

    A Boon for the Industry

    This vaccine is key to returning the world to business as usual, but the effect will not be immediate. We will likely be dealing with COVID-19 restrictions, protocols, and effects throughout 2021.

    As of early January, over 14 million people have received a vaccine dose across 35 countries, according to data from Bloomberg. In order to achieve herd immunity, 75-80% of the population must be vaccinated.

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    Many groups who most benefit from physical activity and the support, tools, and environment provided by fitness centers, including older adults, people with chronic health conditions or obesity, and people with disabilities, are also groups more likely to have taken extra precautions given their increased risk for severe COVID-19 infection. Fortunately, these groups are also at the front of the line for vaccination. Once they have received both doses of vaccine (and waited two weeks for immunity), these groups—as well as their family and friends who may have been taking extra precautions for their protection—may feel more comfortable returning to activities, including joining or returning to fitness centers. As winter continues, this can have a significant positive impact on both physical and mental health.

    COVID-19 Precautions Remain Paramount

    In the meantime, until the population reaches herd immunity, many of the safety measures in place throughout 2020, including regular mask wearing and physical distancing, will likely remain in place. It is still unclear whether the vaccine protects against transmission of COVID-19 in addition to infection. This is especially important in the context of the new variants identified in the U.K. and South Africa, and other variants that will continue to emerge. These new variants are as much as 70% more transmissible, and have led to widespread outbreaks in some regions. The new variants are not expected to have an impact on vaccine efficacy, though scientists acknowledge other future variants may.

    The vaccine is excellent news for the health and fitness industry, as it will enable more people to return to or pick up fitness, sports, and physical activity. IHRSA will continue to provide resources on the COVID-19 vaccines as distribution increases.

    Additional Vaccine Information

    Author avatar

    Alexandra Black Larcom

    Alexandra Black Larcom, MPH, RD, LDN, previously served as IHRSA's Senior Manager of Health Promotion & Health Policy—a position dedicated to creating resources and projects to help IHRSA members offer effective health programs, and promoting policies that advance the industry.