Slowly but surely, COVID-19 vaccines are reaching more and more people across the United States. The Biden administration's rollout plan appears to be working: The president recently claimed that the U.S. is "on track" to produce enough vaccines to reach every adult in America by May. And on the heels of this good news, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published the first set of long-awaited public health recommendations for those who are fully vaccinated.
People have been so eagerly looking forward to these guidelines because there's been a lot of confusion about what changes after finally getting the vaccine. People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after they receive their final dose; for the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, that's the second dose. But does that mean they can ditch the mask, or forget social distancing? Not quite, says Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, infectious disease epidemiologist and science communication lead at The COVID Tracking Project: "There’s a tremendous upgrade in your quality of life ahead of you once you’re fully vaccinated — but it’s not like get your shot, go on a trip."
"Everyone — even those who are vaccinated — should continue with all mitigation strategies when in public settings," Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, the director of the CDC, said in a recent press release. "As the science evolves and more people get vaccinated, we will continue to provide more guidance to help fully vaccinated people safely resume more activities."
Still, some guidelines are a little different for fully vaccinated people. We broke down the CDC's latest recommendations. Here's exactly what's okay to start doing, two weeks after getting your final shot.
Visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing
Once you're fully vaccinated, you're free to hang out with others who have also been fully vaccinated. "The main focus of this is that fully vaccinated people can hang out with fully vaccinated people in a private setting — not out and about in a mixed crowd — without masks or distancing," Rivera says. "I think that that is really encouraging and promising news." Forgotten what your friends look like in real life, up close or below the eyes? Get ready to find out again.
Visit with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing
This one is a little confusing. "If you’re fully vaccinated and you go to another single household that has unvaccinated people, you can be unmasked, but they have to be masked," Rivera explains. "Unvaccinated people, if they are intermingling with other folks, always need to be masked, and everybody needs to be in masks in the general public," she says. But, she notes, you'll have to take your own risk tolerance into account here. "In my opinion, I don’t actually think it’s wise to be unmasked around unvaccinated people, I just think that the risk is too high," Rivera says.
Whatever your personal beliefs, follow this rule of thumb: The most cautious person gets to set the ground rules. In other words, if your unvaccinated friend wants you to keep your mask on, even after you're fully vaccinated, cover up.
Refrain from quarantine and testing following a known exposure if asymptomatic
Another big change, but one that makes sense: The vaccine is supposed to protect you from contracting COVID. Even if you do get sick, an Israeli study found that those who are fully vaccinated have seen a fourfold decrease in viral load. "If you get sick post-vaccination, your viral load will probably be low, which is why you’ll have a mild or asymptomatic infection and therefore be less likely to transmit it," Rivera explains. There is still some risk of a vaccinated person giving COVID to an unvaccinated person, but not a big one. And that's why states are vaccinated higher risk groups first, she notes: "When you’re dealing with less risk or low risk on both sides of the equation, it’s a pretty safe situation."
Again, even if you're fully vaccinated, you should continue following most of the CDC's guidelines around mask-wearing, social distancing, and staying at home. "Risk is still risk," Rivera says. "[COVID] is still around. We just want people to make informed choices." That said, the new recommendations for post-vaccine behavior are intended to change as we receive more information and data. So until then, practice caution — but things are starting to look up.