For the past year, most of us have been clinging to the hope that vaccines would be developed for COVID-19 at record-breaking speed. (And, let’s face it, what we really hoped was that the availability of a vaccine would mean an instant return to life as we knew it.) But now that vaccinations are happening, it’s clear that we are still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
So what does life look like in a post-vaccine world? With guidelines being updated all the time, it can be confusing to know what’s safe and what isn’t. Here, Techonomy breaks down the basics to help you navigate the risks after you’ve been vaccinated.
Just After Vaccination
Remember that the jab (regardless of brand) does not work immediately. For two-dose vaccines, you are not fully protected until two weeks after the second dose. For the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine, it also takes two weeks for your immune system to be activated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. During this time, you should, if you can, report any apparent side effects from the vaccine to the CDC to help public health officials track trends and spot problems.
Until you are past the two-week window, it’s safest to continue taking all the same precautions you took prior to vaccination — social distancing, masking up, hand-washing, and so on.
Once You’re Fully Protected
Huzzah! Two weeks have passed and you want to rip off that mask and dance in the street, right? We get it. But unfortunately, there is still too much community risk to leave all mitigation measures behind.
Though the United States saw the worst COVID-19 outbreak on the planet, we have been vaccinating people at an astonishing pace. Still, it will take months to achieve the elusive goal of “herd immunity” — that promised land where enough people are protected from the virus, either because they were infected or because they were vaccinated, that it is finally safe for more or less everyone to go back to normal.
At the moment, though, we are unfortunately dealing with very high rates of new infections, and that must be factored into our post-vaccination behavior. We now have a mix of people with some level of immunity and people with none. At the moment, kids younger than 16 cannot even be vaccinated if they wanted to, so they remain at risk for getting infected and transmitting the virus. Some adults will not be able to get vaccinated, and immuno-compromised people — those with organ transplants or undergoing cancer treatments, for instance — may get less protection from a vaccine.
Though vaccinations substantially reduce infections and transmission of the virus, even people who are fully vaccinated can still get COVID-19 and infect others. Data from Israel, where a huge proportion of the population has been vaccinated, finds that still almost 1% of those who have gotten the shots are catching COVID-19, albeit mostly mild cases. That’s why masks are still so important when vaccinated people are around anyone who hasn’t been inoculated or may be at higher risk in general.
With all of these at-risk individuals walking around, even people who have been vaccinated should continue wearing masks in public and avoiding large crowds or poorly ventilated indoor gatherings with many people from different households. Since we can’t possibly know the vaccination or health status of those around us at, say, a grocery store, it’s safest to assume you will encounter someone who is still at risk and to take appropriate precautions. For vaccinated people, the CDC recommends wearing masks in public or when near anyone at high risk of infection, as well as avoiding medium- or large-sized gatherings, meaning those with more than a handful of people.
Even after vaccination, it may be helpful to view COVID-19 risk through the lens of a budget. One high-risk activity (such as eating indoors at a restaurant, working out in a gym, or similar situations where you’re interacting indoors with many people who may or may not be vaccinated) might be the equivalent of three lower-risk activities (such as meeting another family in a park or having a small mask-free gathering at home that includes unvaccinated but low-risk people). You can determine the level of risk you’re comfortable with and then allow that to guide your choice of activities for a given week.
Back to Normal?
As vaccination rates rise, there is exciting opportunity to get back to some of the things we’ve missed so much: seeing friends and family, traveling, playing sports, and more. Guidelines for all of these activities will continue to evolve.
It’s also important to remember that guidelines are like a population average; if your community has a particularly low or high rate of infection, or if your family has higher risk than the average family, you may need to dial safety measures up or down. In my family, for example, we have several people with compromised immune systems. That means my risk tolerance will be lower than that of someone who’s surrounded by fully vaccinated, healthy people. (Wondering what Dr. Fauci would do? He’s also being more cautious about activities that take him away from his home or office.)
With that variance in mind, let’s take a look at the relative safety of some common activities.
Traveling. While the CDC still recommends avoiding cruises, experts are much more sanguine about other types of travel within the U.S. for vaccinated people. Travelers do not need to quarantine or get tested before or after travel unless someone develops symptoms. International travel is much higher-risk; consult the CDC’s country-by-country guidance if you’re planning to leave the U.S., and remember that you’ll need a negative SARS-CoV-2 test to return to the country, no matter where you travel. While traveling, people should still wear masks, wash their hands regularly, and avoid close contact with others.
Restaurants and bars. While we all want to support local businesses, eating and drinking indoors are still higher-risk activities. It’s safer to use take-out or delivery options. But if your community happens to have an extremely low infection rate paired with a high vaccination rate, then visiting restaurants or bars may be less risky. The CDC recently published a report about a bar that reopened in a rural area in Illinois this past February and was quickly linked to dozens of new COVID-19 cases, forcing the closure of local schools. Throughout the pandemic, restaurants and bars have been hotspots for viral transmission. Even after vaccination, they represent real risk because they will almost always include a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, most of whom will not be wearing masks while they eat or drink.
Schools. In March the CDC updated its school guidance, recommending three feet between students’ desks instead of the previous six feet, as long as all students and teachers are masked (when that’s not possible, such as in cafeterias, the six-foot rule still applies). That should allow many schools to open back up to a five-day schedule, but as infection rates are now rising among children due to newer variants of the virus, more caution may be needed.
By this summer, the situation in the U.S. may be very different, with herd immunity entirely possible if vaccinations remain on track and the potential fourth surge is avoided. But we’ll need to continue to be careful, even after vaccination, in order to ensure everyone else’s safety until we get there.