Someone asked me the other day how things have changed since more and more people are getting the COVID-19 vaccine. The truth is, it’s night and day different. As the medical director of Infectious Diseases TeleHealth at Intermountain Healthcare, I’ve had a front-row seat to the devastation caused by the virus. In the past couple of months, we’ve seen fewer cases of serious illness and death. Our ICUs and other hospital units are feeling less stress.
I’m so optimistic about the future and grateful for the vaccines.
Many people are wondering what they can safely do after they are fully vaccinated, which occurs two full weeks after receiving their final dose. According to Centers for Disease Control recommendations, vaccinated people can:
- Gather indoors with fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask.
- Gather indoors with unvaccinated people from one other household (for example, visiting with relatives who all live together) without masks, unless any of those people or anyone they live with has an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
- 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.
- However, 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 scenarios people are asking me about, and recommendations from the CDC:
- Hugging a friend or relative. Yes, even without a mask, as long as both of you are vaccinated. Stay six feet apart if you’re with someone who’s unvaccinated.
- Weddings, family reunions, and other medium or large gatherings. Avoid these for now until more members of our community are fully vaccinated.
- Eating out. Avoid crowded indoor spaces. Takeout is still a good option.
- Domestic travel. The CDC says domestic travel is safe for fully vaccinated people who are not immunocompromised. Vaccinated travelers don't need to have a COVID test before or after flying, unless one is required by their destination. Nor do they have to quarantine after returning home. Be sure to follow all state and local recommendations or requirements. Continue to follow safety precautions while traveling: wear a mask, avoid crowded areas, maintain social distancing, and wash hands frequently. Once your trip is complete, watch for signs of illness; isolate and get tested if symptoms appear.
International travel. Check the CDC website for updated information on travel to specific countries.
- Grocery store and other errands. Avoid crowded indoor spaces. Wear a mask and follow social distancing rules when you are out.
- Sending kids to daycare or school. No vaccines have been authorized for kids under age 16, but the CDC says both students and vaccinated individuals in daycare or school settings should wear a mask and stay 3 feet apart; if transmission rate is high in the community, stay 6 feet apart in middle and high school.
- Spending time with grandkids. Vaccinated individuals can spend time with family, including unvaccinated children, unless a child or someone they live with is at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
Now that more of us are breathing a sigh of relief about COVID-19, it’s important to remember that we have a duty to look out for others. That means we can’t just take off the mask and act like everything is normal again.
Our current vaccines are amazingly effective at preventing serious illness and death from the virus. But we’re still waiting to learn how long protection lasts and if a vaccinated person can pass the virus on to someone else.
We also aren’t sure yet how effective the vaccines are against the variants that are spreading in greater numbers throughout the country, including Utah. If we stop masking too soon, the variants may continue to spread and mutate. Ultimately that could render the vaccines less effective and possibly make the pandemic worse.
The state is lifting the mask mandate on April 10, but from my perspective, that day will be just like April 9. If I'm out in public, I’m still going to wear my mask. There are a lot of people in our community who are still at risk. We have a responsibility to watch out for their health and safety.
I'm grateful that we have tools to fight the virus – including masks, vaccines, and therapeutic drugs – and evidence that they work.
We need to continue using everything in our toolbox until we are in a position where we really have gotten back to “new normal.”