New Jerseyans continue to get COVID-19 vaccines to protect themselves from the virus that has killed close to 20,000 residents and infected more than 650,000 people in the Garden State over the past 11 months.

The plan put forth by public health officials and the governor is to get 70% of the adult population vaccinated by late spring or early summer, which will provide a strong level of community protection, or herd immunity, and dramatically decrease the danger posed by the virus.

But no one is sure how long that community protection will last.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, when they were rolled out in mid-December, had efficacy rates around 95%, which is exceptionally high for any vaccine.

In recent weeks, however, there has been growing concern about variants, or mutations, especially the South African variant, because some early analysis suggests vaccines may not be as effective against those strains.

According to New Jersey COVID-19 medical advisor Eddy Bresnitz, a former state epidemiologist and deputy health commissioner, what we’re seeing is not unusual.

He said it’s a natural course for viruses to mutate, and some of these mutations survive because they gain an advantage in propagating themselves.

“They can become resistant to the monoclonal antibodies or they can become more resistant to the vaccines," he said.

That means at some point in the future, it’s possible we may need new vaccines to provide additional protection from the variants, similar to the way new influenza vaccines are created every year.

“Vaccine manufacturers are already beginning to develop modified vaccines to basically address these mutations. That may result in an additional booster dose that may be needed to prevent COVID-19, but it’s too early to say," he said. “We just don’t know if they’re going to get re-infected in the future because of waning immunity, because of dropping antibody levels.”

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