You've jumped through the administrative hurdles of getting a COVID vaccine appointment, braved both shots, and have waited patiently (in quarantine) for your immunity to build up. You're more than ready to start going back to normal. But because vaccines are just as much about herd immunity as they are about individual immunity, what can you safely do once you're vaccinated for COVID?
"Vaccines are a path to herd immunity and the fastest way to get to a post-pandemic life," says Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., the regional medical director of One Medical. But even though vaccines are extremely effective at protecting you from COVID, they don't constitute a get-out-of-pandemic-free card just yet.
"It will be a very gradual return to normal, rather than flipping a light switch back to normal," says Dr. Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health.
No matter what you're looking to do, remember that there's always a two-week waiting period, minimum, after your second dose of the vaccine. "We are only fully vaccinated if it’s been 14 days after the second dose of mRNA vaccines," Dr. Bhuyan explains. "Once we are fully vaccinated, it’s unlikely that we will get sick from COVID. However, we don’t know yet if we could get asymptomatic COVID and spread it to others — although that is unlikely per emerging evidence." Once you're vaccinated, you've got a less than 5% chance of getting sick from the virus yourself, but because you might still be able to spread it, community safety is still a big factor.
In other words, vaccinations will help us get back to a world where we can hang out in our friends' living rooms again. But you've still got some serious factors to consider when you're thinking about going out to eat, planning your next trip out to see the parentals, or making plans with your besties. As the case has been throughout the pandemic, choosing your activities is an exercise in risk management.
To protect others, activities become safer if they're outdoors, if infection rates are low near you or wherever you're going, and if you're wearing your mask and distancing. Here's a rough guide to the kinds of activities you probably want to do most post-vax, and how risky they are once you're inoculated.
What Does The CDC Say About What Vaccinated People Can Do?
On Mar. 8, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) announced new guidelines for people who've been vaccinated during a White House press briefing. The new guidelines say that people who are fully vaccinated — meaning, it's been at least two weeks since their last dose — can visit other vaccinated people inside without worrying about masks or maintaining distance, per CNN. They can also hang out inside — again, sans mask, sans distancing — with people who haven't been fully vaccinated and aren't at high risk for severe disease. The CDC had previously announced in February that fully vaccinated people don't have to quarantine if they're exposed to someone with COVID.
The CDC added new guidance on Apr. 2, saying that fully vaccinated people could travel within the U.S. “at low risk to themselves” without testing negative or quarantining. When it comes to international travel, the CDC advised that fully vaccinated people could travel without getting tested unless their destination requires proof of a negative test, and without quarantining when they get back unless their local jurisdiction says they should.
Still, the CDC said that vaccinated people should continue to wear a mask in public; keep a (masked) distance from anyone who's unvaccinated and at risk for severe disease, or who lives with someone who's at high risk; get tested if they feel sick; and keep washing their hands vigilantly.
How Risky Is Visiting Your Parents If You're Vaccinated?
When you're looking to finally see your folks again, consider everyone's vaccination status before you go. "If your parents themselves have gotten vaccinated, this is certainly significantly safer than if they're not," Dr. Bhuyan tells Bustle.
Still, caution is important in case there's a chance of asymptomatic spreading. "It’s important to wear masks when you are around people outside of your household and ventilation is another key factor in minimizing spread," Dr. Bhuyan says. If everyone involved is fully vaccinated, you might feel comfortable doing the previously unthinkable — unmasking and giving your folks a hug. With everyone vaccinated, it's pretty darn unlikely that any of you will get sick.
Even if all your people are vaccinated, you could theoretically still give them the virus. Even if they don't get sick, if they don't mask up and distance outside the house, the virus could spread in the community to others who haven't yet been vaccinated. So regardless of the vaccination status of all involved, Dr. Bhuyan explains that it's least risky to see your folks outdoors only for the time being.
How Risky Is Visiting Your Friends Post-Vaccine?
Having your friends over might be the first thing you want to do, but it probably shouldn't be the first thing you actually do. Take into account who's been vaccinated, who hasn't, and what everyone's risk factors are, Dr. Bhuyan advises. "It is a reasonable option to hang out with friends and continue to wear a mask and physically distance, especially if the group is a mix of people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated," she says. With all vaccinated folks, she says you can feel much better about being safe yourselves without masks — but there's still a possibility of passing the virus between you and spreading it to others outside your vaccinated bubble. The level of risk depends on who's there and what you're doing — and once again, better outdoors than not.
How Risky Is Indoor Dining After Vaccination?
The CDC's new guidelines say that the risk of infection from eating inside a restaurant or going to the gym is lower if you're fully vaccinated, but still not zero. "Risk can be mitigated by waiting two weeks post-second dose for all people involved, eating near an open window, and being in a restaurant with appropriate distancing," Dr. Parikh advises. "Wear your masks when you're not eating."
Still, doctors advise weighing the decision carefully. "Transmission data shows that indoor dining at restaurants or bars that are poorly ventilated are some of the high-risk activities for spreading COVID," Dr. Bhuyan says. "Of course, this evidence is related to people who are unvaccinated. However, in regions where cases remain high, it’s still the safest option to do take-out or outdoor dining until cases decrease."
How Risky Is Traveling Post-Vaccine?
While fully vaccinated people can travel “at low risk to themselves,” per the CDC, more research needs to be done on transmission before your spring or summer break can be considered truly risk-free.
As with traveling throughout the pandemic, the seemingly little things make big difference in terms of transmission risk. "The risk of travel depends on the method of transportation, regional case rates, and the mitigating strategies of the locations you are visiting," Dr. Bhuyan says. A road trip in the car with your spouse or roommate is one thing, but a bus trip with a bunch of pit stops and all your besties that you certainly don't live with is quite another.
Heading into regions with high rates of the different COVID variants may not be the best plan — the vaccine will protect you from getting sick, but it may be possible to still transmit asymptomatically when you come home. Still, you might safely take the scenic route to your parents' house if you pack your snacks in advance, mask up, and hang out in the backyard when you get there.
What Are The Safest Activities After You're Vaccinated?
Even as more people get vaccinated, some things haven't changed. "Anything outside where you can keep your mask on the whole time is still safest," Dr. Parikh says. Any variation on being indoors and eating (unmasked) is going to be a much bigger risk, even after you're vaccinated. Continue to keep it outdoors, distanced, and masked, especially when the rates are still high in your area, though Dr. Bhuyan points out that at least you can rest assured that you're safer than you were pre-vaccine in your activities.
"Interacting with others who are fully vaccinated is one of the lower risk activities you can do," Dr. Bhuyan says. But you'll still want to exercise caution for the sake of those who haven't gotten their shots yet — because herd immunity really is the goal, anyway.
Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., regional medical director of One Medical
Dr. Purvi Parikh, M.D., allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health
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