What’s Safe to Do After Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Since the arrival in mid-December 2020 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.

There are currently three vaccines that are authorized for use in the United States:

— An mRNA vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech that’s delivered via two shots given 21 days apart.

— An mRNA vaccine made by Moderna that’s delivered via two shots given 28 days apart.

— A viral vectored vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson that’s delivered via a single shot.

“As with other vaccines, the COVID vaccines mimic the COVID virus,” without actually introducing the virus to the body, says Dr. Charles C. J. Bailey, medical director for infection prevention at Providence Mission Hospital and Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California.

This means the immune system becomes “sensitized” so that “the immune system will recognize and respond to a future exposure to COVID by mobilizing antibodies and activated lymphocytes to attack the COVID virus.” (Antibodies and lymphocytes are products of the immune system that help fight infection.)

Though the mRNA and viral vectored vaccines use two different approaches to achieving immunity, all have been shown to be safe and effective, and all are helpful in preventing severe illness and death. But getting there takes a little time.

[See: What Are the Symptoms of Coronavirus?]

When You’re Considered Fully Immune

“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. It takes about two weeks after you’ve gotten the shot for your body to generate the antibodies to fight off the virus if you’re exposed to it.

“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.”

After those two weeks are over, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that fully vaccinated persons can resume activities they did prior to the pandemic, such as dining or gathering with other vaccinated persons, but masking is still highly recommended when there may be unvaccinated persons in close proximity,” says Dr. Supriya Narasimhan, an epidemiologist and chief of infectious diseases at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California.

You’ll have partial immunity two weeks after the first shot, but everyone’s different in how the body responds to the vaccine. 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: Wear a mask, wash your hands and physically distance.

Get a Booster Shot

In late November 2021, the CDC began recommending that all vaccinated adults get a booster shot of a COVID-19 vaccine to increase the level of protection they have.

This is because studies have suggested that the durability of the protection you get from the vaccines wanes over time, “especially against certain variants like delta and now similar trends are being seen with omicron,” two mutated strains of the coronavirus that are supplanting previous strains of the virus as most prevalent, Narasimhan says.

Some people are at higher risk of waning protection, such as those over age 65 and those with medical conditions like diabetes and kidney disease, Narasimhan says. “Even so, the protection against death, critical illness and hospitalization remains robust across the spectrum and the disease course remains mild in the majority of vaccinated persons. Booster doses help bolster the immune response and restore protection, which is why they’re now recommended for all adults in the U.S.”

You can mix and match or stick with the same type of vaccine when you’re going for a booster. If you had the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccine, the booster should be administered six months or more after your second dose. With the J&J one-shot vaccine, you’re eligible for a booster two months after your one-dose shot.

On Dec. 16, 2021, the CDC recommended that people select one of the mRNA vaccines instead of the J&J shot because the mRNA technology has produced better protection levels. But if you can’t or won’t take the Pfizer or Moderna option, you can still get the J&J shot and be more protected than being unvaccinated or unboosted.

[Read: Immunocompromised and Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine.]

What Can I Do Differently After Being Vaccinated?

“The answer depends on what your risk tolerance is,” says Dr. Carrie A. Horn, chief medical officer and chief of the division of hospital and internal medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver. “The vaccines are really good at preventing hospitalization and severe illness and death.”

But they can’t prevent any of those things from happening 100%. As the virus has mutated, more so-called breakthrough infections are occurring in people who are fully vaccinated and even in some people who are also boosted. Though these infections are occurring, they tend to be significantly milder than infections occurring in unvaccinated people.

Horn says that while you’re less likely to end up in the hospital if you catch COVID after being vaccinated, the answer of what you can do more safely also depends on your individual situation. For example, if you’re older, immunocompromised or recently had chemotherapy treatment, you may be at higher risk of getting COVID-19 — even if you’re fully vaccinated and boosted. This means you’ll still need to be careful.

You should also consider what sort of situation you might be entering into and whether other people you’ll be in contact with are fully vaccinated it. “If it’s a relatively small group, it’s probably still safe. But if it’s a 200-person, unmasked, indoor event,” that might be less safe, Horn says.

If you don’t know someone’s vaccine status, it’s best to assume they’re not fully vaccinated and wear a mask and keep your distance.

Still, vaccination does bring certain benefits, Bailey notes. Vaccination means you can “frequent businesses that require full vaccination to enter, you have the ability to travel more freely independent of COVID testing requirements and you have the ability to visit likewise fully vaccinated friends and family with more peace of mind and fewer masking scenarios.

Narasimhan adds that “domestic travel can be safely resumed for asymptomatic vaccinated persons without the need for pre-travel testing. Before traveling internationally, you’ll have to check the requirements of at your destination, and such stipulations are being updated frequently based on the spread of new variants.

If you’re returning from overseas travel, vaccinated individuals don’t have to quarantine, but you still need to get tested at day three to five after you’ve gotten home. Masking on public transport is required regardless of vaccination status, and booster doses don’t change these recommendations, Narasimhan notes.

Even if you’re fully vaccinated and boosted, you should still wear a mask:

— When you’re around people who are unvaccinated.

— When you’re in poorly ventilated spaces.

— When you’re traveling by public transport, including air travel.

And if you develop symptoms of COVID-19, get tested and self-isolate as recommended by your doctor or local public health authorities to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus onwards.

[READ: How to Talk to Someone Who’s Hesitant to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine.]

What You Should Keep Doing

While you can feel reasonably confident that you’ll be safer in certain situations after getting vaccinated, it’s still best to err on the side of caution in light of the current surge in cases from the omicron variant. Even if you’re fully vaccinated and boosted, you can become infected and it’s still possible to pass that infection on to someone else, whether they’re vaccinated or not.

What hasn’t changed throughout this ever-evolving crisis is that the tried-and-true methods of reducing transmission are still useful tools that should be employed as often as possible:

— Wear a mask anytime you’re in public, particularly if rates of community transmission are high where you live or are visiting.

— Limit unnecessary travel.

— Stay at least 6 feet apart from others outside your household.

— Avoid crowds.

— Avoid poorly ventilated spaces.

— Avoid gathering indoors with unvaccinated people. Wear a mask anytime you come into contact with people whose immunity status you’re not sure of.

— Wash your hands frequently.

— Take care of your health in general by getting other routine vaccinations, such as your flu, pneumonia or shingles vaccine.

It’s still not entirely clear how effective the vaccines are against emerging strains or variants of the coronavirus. How long immunity lasts from the currently available vaccines is another open question, and it’s likely that researchers will advise more booster shots in the future as investigation continues.

The pandemic is evolving along with the virus itself; eventually the coronavirus will become an endemic virus like seasonal colds and flu and it’s expected to continue circulating indefinitely. While there’s hope that the vaccines will help slow and stop the spread, the key is to get the entire world vaccinated to reduce the virus’s opportunities to continue mutating into potentially more dangerous forms.

Even Fully Vaccinated, You Can Still Spread the Virus

It’s worth underscoring that even if you’re fully vaccinated, 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, that’s an open question as the omicron variant is causing many nations and municipalities to reinstate restrictions and mask mandates. Winter is typically the prime season for circulation of airborne viruses like colds, the flu and now the coronavirus.

Laird says 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.”

More from U.S. News

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What’s Safe to Do After Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine? originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 12/22/21: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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