Since the arrival in mid-December of a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19, there’s been a glimmer of hope at the end of the long, dark tunnel of this pandemic. As shots find their way into arms, many vaccinated people are wondering what’s safe for them to do and how to navigate the last few miles of the road back to normal.
“First, remember that you’re not considered fully immune immediately after getting the COVID-19 vaccine,” says Dr. Timothy Laird, chief medical officer with the Health First Medical Group in Melbourne, Florida.
There are currently three vaccines that are authorized for use in the United States:
1. An mRNA vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech that’s delivered via two shots given 21 days apart.
2. An mRNA vaccine made by Moderna that’s delivered via two shots given 28 days apart.
3. A viral vectored vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson that’s delivered via a single shot.
Though these vaccines use two different approaches to achieving immunity, all have been shown to be safe and effective, and all have excellent success rates in preventing severe illness and death. But getting there takes a little time.
“If you received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, you need to wait two weeks after the second dose before considering yourself fully vaccinated,” Laird says. “If you get the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you are considered fully protected two weeks after that dose.”
During that two-week period, your body is hard at work building the antibodies needed to combat the coronavirus if you’re exposed to it, says Dr. Niket Sonpal, a board-certified gastroenterologist and internist in New York City. “What we’re doing is we’re increasing the probability and concentration of antibodies to help neutralize the virus if you come into contact with it,” he explains.
You’ll have partial immunity two weeks after the first shot, but “everyone’s different, and the degree of effect is different. You’re creating antibodies right off the bat,” but how protective they are against infection is not well known and can vary from person to person. This is why getting the second shot on time as directed is so important.
“While you’re waiting for your second dose, and in the two weeks that follow, you should be still be following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as if you weren’t vaccinated,” Laird adds.
In other words, keep doing all the things we’ve been doing for the past year to stop the spread: wear a mask, wash your hands and socially distance.
What Can I Do Differently After Being Vaccinated?
However, two weeks after you’ve completed vaccination, there are a few things you can do a little differently. To help people better understand what’s safe and what’s still potentially dangerous to do as vaccines are rolling out, on March 8, 2021, the CDC released its first set of recommendations on activities that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can safely resume.
The CDC guidelines note that if you’ve been fully vaccinated you can:
— Gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people without having to wear a mask. The CDC did not specify a size limit on such gatherings of fully vaccinated people. “Activities like a cookout or a game night with a fully vaccinated group are largely considered safe,” Laird says.
— Gather indoors with unvaccinated people from one other household without having to wear a mask. For example, if you’re visiting relatives who all live together, you can visit with them without a mask unless any of those individuals is at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
— If you’ve been in contact with someone who has COVID-19, you don’t need to quarantine or get tested unless you have symptoms or unless you live in a group setting like a detention facility or nursing home.
These guidelines can seem a little complicated, and there’s some nuance here. During a March 10 media briefing, Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious disease expert and head of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group in Rochester, Minnesota, noted “you have to consider individual circumstances.”
Where one person might be at less risk, another who’s older, immunocompromised or recently had chemotherapy treatment, for example, may be at higher risk — even if vaccinated — and need to be treated more carefully.
Poland also said that in the example of inviting someone to your home for a social gathering, remember not everyone may be “willing to divulge their private information to you.” Because health information is private, some people may not want to communicate whether they’ve been vaccinated or have certain risk factors that might not be obvious, even if it might be safer to do so. So keep in mind that you may not know the status of everyone you come into contact with.
In those cases, it’s best to assume individuals are not fully vaccinated and mask and keep your distance.
[READ: Myths About COVID-19 Vaccines.]
What You Should Keep Doing
As the new recommendations have indicated, you can now largely feel safe gathering with other fully vaccinated people. But there are plenty of things that haven’t changed in this new advice.
The CDC still recommends taking steps to protect yourself from infection with the novel coronavirus and others by:
— Wearing a mask anytime you’re in public.
— Avoiding or delaying travel. “Spring break travel is not a good idea,” Poland said.
— Staying at least 6 feet apart from others outside your household.
— Avoiding crowds.
— Avoiding poorly ventilated spaces.
— Avoiding gathering indoors with unvaccinated people from more than one other household. Wear a mask anytime you come into contact with people whose immunity status you’re not sure of.
“Your public behavior should remain largely unchanged,” Laird says. “Keep wearing a mask, remain physically distant and avoid large gatherings and crowded spaces.”
Poland said that while the new guidelines help clarify what’s safer to do in the context of full vaccination — meaning 14 days or more after receiving the final shot — “there’s no situation in which there is no risk.”
These guidelines are the “CDC’s first step toward normalcy, balancing the value of social interaction and family interactions that many of us have not been engaging in.” He added that achieving immunity via vaccination is not going to be like flicking a light switch and suddenly you can now do everything you want. Instead you have to remain vigilant and cognizant of others.
He also noted that the recommendations are “science-based,” meaning that they have been developed with the latest evidence factored in. As our understanding of how protective these vaccines are against the new variants that have emerged and other information comes to light, expect the guidelines to be adjusted accordingly.
It’s still not clear how effective the vaccines are against the variants. How long immunity lasts from the currently available vaccines is another open question. These concerns are being investigated carefully.
As scientists learn more about whether the vaccines can counter the variants and how long you’re covered by the current vaccines, you may need to get additional shots, or boosters, to maintain immunity or to counter new strains of the coronavirus. This crisis is still evolving, and while there’s much promise for a return to more normal life soon, many public health authorities have noted that we’re likely to be dealing with the fallout for the next few years.
[READ: Should You Be Double-Masking?]
Even Fully Vaccinated, You Can Still Spread the Virus
Also, it’s important to note that even if you’re fully vaccinated, “you should still be mindful that you can transmit the virus to others,” Laird says. This means that “if you’re going to be around someone who is unvaccinated and at high risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms, you should still wear a mask and stay physically distant.”
As for when we can expect things to return to normal, Sonpal says, “in (Anthony) Fauci we trust. He has his finger on the pulse, and he will know when the right time is” to lift restrictions and return to life as normal. “I personally believe that we will reach that point, but there may still be a certain degree of parameters in place. For example, I think flights may require masks forever. And I think it’s a brilliant idea.”
Laird agrees that listening to public health authorities is the key for knowing when we can take the next step toward normal life. “After vaccination, just keep up the public masking and distancing until public health authorities declare transmission at low enough levels to forgo those tactics. Remember, masks and physical distancing allow our economy and communities to thrive — and can avoid costly shutdowns and event cancellations.”
Lastly, when it’s your turn, get the vaccine. “Whatever vaccine you can get, you should take it with both hands,” Sonpal says. Though it shouldn’t give you a false sense of security, the sooner we all get vaccinated and we achieve herd immunity — roughly 60% to 80% of the population inoculated — the faster we can loosen additional restrictions.
“The science is clear,” Laird adds. “We have a safe, effective vaccine that was developed by a heroic effort, and we now can save the lives of our fellow Americans and get our own lives and economy more toward normalcy. Supplies are increasing, so have patience while distribution increases — but when it’s your turn, get vaccinated. Every doctor and scientist I personally know has been vaccinated, including myself. Get your advice on vaccination from medical and public health experts — not social media.”
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What’s Safe to Do After Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine? originally appeared on usnews.com