Fully vaccinated against COVID-19? Here's what health experts say is safe for you to do
The COVID-19 vaccine represents big progress against the new coronavirus pandemic, but health experts say even people who are fully vaccinated should still take some precautions, at least for now.
Gov. Doug Ducey on March 25 lifted all COVID-19 business restrictions, but public health advice calls for continued mitigation measures. That's largely because one of the most important scientific questions about the vaccine is still unsettled — whether or not a vaccinated person can get infected and pass the virus to someone who isn't vaccinated.
Until more is known about how vaccines will affect the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, there are still some limitations, even for people who are vaccinated. The virus is still in circulation, and as of April 26, fewer than one in three Arizonanswas fully immunized with either two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people who have been fully vaccinated should keep taking precautions in public places. Those precautions include wearing a mask, staying six feet apart from others and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces.
Other CDC recommendations for people who have been fully vaccinated:
- "You can gather indoors with fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart.
- "You can gather indoors with unvaccinated people from one other household (for example, visiting with relatives who all live together) without masks or staying 6 feet apart, unless any of those people or anyone they live with has an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
- "If you travel in the United States, you do not need to get tested before or after travel or self-quarantine after travel.
- "If you’ve been around someone who has COVID-19, you do not need to stay away from others or get tested unless you have symptoms.
- "If you live in a group setting (like a correctional or detention facility or group home) and are around someone who has COVID-19, you should still stay away from others for 14 days and get tested, even if you don’t have symptoms."
Here are some other common questions and answers about life after the COVID-19 vaccination:
How long will my COVID-19 vaccine last?
It’s too soon to know. Researchers are studying how long protection from the vaccines lasts, which will determine how often we could need booster shots.
The virus could continue to mutate so that new versions of the vaccine could be needed in the future on a regular basis, like for the influenza vaccines. But researchers don’t know yet.
Some vaccines, such as for measles, are effective for life. Others wear off or need to be adjusted annually for mutations. The COVID-19 vaccine's timeline is still under study.
When will I be considered fully vaccinated?
Individuals are considered fully vaccinated and protected against COVID-19 about two weeks after their final vaccine dose. That means two weeks after the second dose of Pfizer or Moderna, or two weeks after the first and only dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The CDC says if it's been less than two weeks since the last shot, you should not consider yourself fully protected against the virus and you should keep up practices such as wearing masks, distancing, avoiding crowds and washing hands in order to avoid getting infected.
The two weeks are important in order to give the body time to respond to the vaccine material, said Keri Althoff, an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, during a March 25 briefing.
"Definitely celebrate when it’s your turn to get vaccinated and you receive the vaccine, but then also remember that you have about two weeks left until you can start adjusting your behaviors to reflect what is now recommended for people who are vaccinated," she said.
"Until that point, you should still be cautious to the point where you are treating all of the guidelines for how we’re interacting with each other in the category of an unvaccinated person.”
Can I still transmit COVID-19 after getting the vaccine?
This is still being studied. Fully vaccinated people have a low risk of getting infected, but if they do get infected, they might be able to spread the disease to others even if they themselves have no symptoms.
That’s one reason masks are recommended in public even for those vaccinated, to prevent the chance that a vaccinated person might unknowingly pass along the illness to an unvaccinated person who might have increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
The CDC says it’s still learning how successfully the vaccines prevent people from spreading the disease.
“Early data show that the vaccines may help keep people from spreading COVID-19, but we are learning more as more people get vaccinated,” the CDC says.
Do I still have to wear a mask while shopping or at work?
The CDC on April 27 updated its advice on wearing masks outdoors. The federal agency says it's OK to participate in outdoor activities and recreation without a mask "except in certain crowded settings and venues."
CDC officials advise wearing a well-fitted mask in indoor settings and avoiding indoor large-size in-person gatherings.
Ducey's executive order in late March said local city and town mask mandates could no longer be enforced.
"Mask usage is still encouraged, especially in groups that are not vaccinated," he said.
Can I travel now that I'm vaccinated against COVID-19?
The CDC on April 2 updated its travel guidance to recommend that fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk to themselves. A person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the last recommended dose of vaccine, officials say.
More specifics on the updated CDC recommendations:
- "Fully vaccinated people can travel internationally without getting a COVID-19 test before travel unless it is required by the international destination.
- "Fully vaccinated people do not need to self-quarantine after returning to the U.S., unless required by a state or local jurisdiction.
- "Fully vaccinated people should still have a negative COVID-19 test result before they board a flight to the U.S. and get a COVID-19 test 3 to 5 days after returning from international travel.
- "Fully vaccinated people should continue to take COVID-19 precautions while traveling internationally."
Dr. Joshua LaBaer, who is executive director of Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute, said if people who are fully vaccinated want to travel and follow guidelines like wearing masks, "it probably is not unreasonable for them to travel at this point."
The big issue is whether or not those vaccinated people could transmit the virus to others, he said.
Dr. Farshad Fani Marvasti, a physician and associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine Phoenix, said he believes the science supports allowing travel for people who are fully vaccinated.
"I would take precautions, though, in terms of the public, with respect to mask-wearing, which is federal law anyway, but I would still do it anyway just for safety of everyone involved — wearing a mask on planes, trains and buses and in those public spaces," Marvasti said.
Is it safe for me to go the gym after getting the COVID-19 vaccine?
"It's fine to go to the gym after you are fully vaccinated," said Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, a Phoenix family physician and clinical assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine Phoenix. "However, because there are still circulating cases, it's important to still take precautions in the gym, like wear a mask, ensure the gym is well-ventilated and maintaining physical distance from others."
As more people get vaccinated and cases decrease, those extra layers of precaution may change in the future, Bhuyan said.
"Many of my patients who are fully vaccinated have returned to the gyms, and this has been beneficial for both their physical and mental well-being."
The vaccines being used right now in the U.S. are excellent, added ASU's LaBaer, so going to the gym is fine as long as people follow precautions to prevent the spread of virus to others.
The risk is not to the people who are fully vaccinated, he said.
"All of them do a tremendous job at preventing severe infection," he said of the three COVID-19 vaccines in use in the U.S.
"To my knowledge nobody who has been vaccinated with any of the vaccines that have been approved in the U.S. for emergency use, nobody has had a severe case and died from COVID-19, if they've been vaccinated."
Can we visit grandparents after they get vaccinated?
Bhuyan said the risk of unknowingly transmitting the new coronavirus to others, once vaccinated, is low.
"This means the vaccines protect not only you, they protect the people around you," she said. "If your grandparents are fully vaccinated and you are fully vaccinated, it is safe to visit them, and in fact, you do not need to wear a mask around them."
But if your grandparents are unvaccinated, while you can still visit them, it's important to wear a mask and physically distance for now until case counts are lower, she said.
It's OK for vaccinated grandparents to see family living in another household, Barry of Johns Hopkins University concurred, though some families may wish to take extra protective measures when visiting with particularly vulnerable people.
"Vaccination is a huge step toward protection, but it's not 100%," she emphasized. "If you are still concerned about a grandparent who may have another condition that would make them more vulnerable to severe COVID, I think it's important to find the right approach for your family."
Reducing exposures before you visit or wearing masks while visiting indoors are extra precautions she suggested.
What about places of worship?
When possible, worship outdoors. If it has to be inside, health experts say physical distancing and masks are important.
"I'm in the process of thinking through, with my own synagogue, how to plan around COVID mitigation. I think in addition to masking and physical distancing protocol, ... ventilation really matters a lot," said Colleen Barry, chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
What worries Barry most about people returning to indoor worship is singers within the congregation. Moving outside is a much safer way for people to sing, given studies from early in the pandemic that showed singing was a high risk activity for transmission.
What things should fully vaccinated people still not do?
The biggest thing that people who have been vaccinated should not do is forget about COVID-19 prevention measures, health experts say.
"If you have been vaccinated, you are likely reassessing your risks and making different choices," said Althoff of Johns Hopkins University.
"... Even those vaccinated must continue to follow the pillars of prevention while in the community, including mask-wearing, physical distancing and handwashing."
Bhuyan said it's still best for people who are fully vaccinated to avoid large gatherings. They should also not ignore symptoms of COVID-19 and they should get tested if they are experiencing symptoms.
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