If you just got the coronavirus vaccine and your mind is buzzing thinking about all the things you can potentially do now that you’ve got some protection against COVID-19, it’s certainly understandable.
This has been an incredibly tough year, and we’ve given up a lot. We haven’t been able to safely go out with friends and family. We canceled weddings and parties. Travel plans got postponed, and birthdays and holidays have been abnormally quiet. Naturally, the jabs in the arm are going to stir up some pent-up excitement about being able to enjoy all the things you’ve been missing.
So what can you do now? Well, that’s complicated. In general, evaluating how safe an activity will be after getting vaccinated isn’t so cut-and-dried. For the most part, very little has changed for those who are vaccinated.
Experts stress that it’s a little early to say you can resume a pre-pandemic lifestyle, especially given the fact that so many other people are still unvaccinated. Herd immunity, when about 70% or more of the population is immune to the disease, is the main target for “normality.”
The shots are highly effective against the virus leading to hospitalization and death, which is excellent, but that’s not the only thing to consider right now. Promising research does indicate the vaccines may reduce transmission, but more evidence needs to be collected.
This all means that no activity is entirely risk-free at the moment. However, with the right precautions, some of your favorite activities might be a little bit safer, according to experts. But there are other vital factors you need to keep in mind as we navigate the rest of the pandemic.
Local transmission and your risk really matter.
Before we grade the safety of various post-vaccination activities, it’s worth noting a few important caveats.
One, you want to look at community transmission. If cases are extremely high in your area, certain activities (like dining indoors) will be way riskier compared to an area with minimal COVID-19 activity.
Second, you still have to evaluate your personal risk. We should all continue to wear masks and maintain physical distancing. If you have underlying health conditions that make you more vulnerable to COVID-19 or if you live with someone who does, it’ll be vital to continue practicing the tried-and-true safety precautions. Keep in mind that about 1 in 20 people won’t be protected even after getting vaccinated.
Lastly, emerging evidence has shown us that even mild cases can lead to devastating long-haul symptoms that persist for months, potentially years. This goes for people who are otherwise healthy and might even include people who had a totally asymptomatic infection. So, although the shot will protect most people against severe illness, there are a lot of unanswered questions about what’s in store for people who get a mild to moderate case of COVID-19 after being vaccinated.
Is it safe to go to a friend’s or family member’s house?
Hanging out with other people who’ve been vaccinated, just looking at that instance on its own, is probably low risk.
“If you are getting together with people who you know are vaccinated and have two doses, you probably do not need to wear a mask because even if you, for some reason, were an asymptomatic carrier and gave it to them, the likelihood of them getting really sick is going to be low,” said Krysia Lindan, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.
However, it gets complicated when you factor in other people. It’s important to consider the health of everyone involved, said Chris Thompson, an immunologist and associate professor of biology at Loyola University Maryland’s department of biology.
For example, if everyone is really healthy, it might be less risky, but if anyone has “underlying complications, why risk it?” Thompson said.
The same goes for spending time indoors with friends or family members who haven’t been vaccinated. This is definitely riskier. If you’re vaccinated, you have a lower chance of contracting the infection, but you still run the risk of unknowingly passing it to others.
“You’re taking some risk. It’s less than it was previously, but I wouldn’t be completely cavalier about it,” Lindan said.
Though a couple of small studies have suggested the vaccines cut transmission, we really don’t know if you can still spread it, Thompson said.
Is it safe to go to restaurants?
Most infectious disease experts agree that indoor dining is still risky since the coronavirus is an airborne disease (meaning it can hang in the air for hours and be inhaled). Though that risk of getting sick drops substantially after vaccination, there’s still a world in which you could go out to eat and pick up COVID-19.
In general, outdoor dining is much safer than eating indoors. (When we say outdoors, we mean fully outdoors — not an enclosed outdoor structure.) Being indoors, without a mask and in close proximity to others who are talking and laughing, invites the opportunity for the virus to spread.
If you choose to eat indoors after getting the vaccine, wear a mask when you’re not actively eating and avoid crowded spots, Lindan said. If you’re older and at risk of serious COVID-19 illness, it’s probably not a wise idea to take off your mask and start eating indoors near strangers who may or may not be vaccinated.
Is it safe to travel?
Thompson said it’s wise to adhere to the same standards in place for unvaccinated people. The risk of getting sick will be lower, but if you have to fly, wear a good mask and maybe even a face shield. “None of that really changes,” Thompson said.
We don’t know how long immunity lasts after vaccination, and, remember, not everyone who’s been vaccinated will develop immunity. Airports and public restrooms are thought to be more dangerous than airplanes, which have great air filtration.
Public transportation also carries a risk of being exposed to aerosolized virus. The risk drops after vaccination, especially for healthy people, but you could still potentially spread the virus in these confined spaces. It’s unclear how often buses, subways and rideshares are sanitized, and these transit services generally have poor ventilation, so masks are a must whether you’ve been vaccinated or not.
Is it safe to go to the salon or gym?
Lindan said that after being vaccinated, “one could feel much safer” going to get their hair cut, assuming the staff and other customers were also wearing masks. Salons have been regarded as a high-risk environment, but combined with a good face mask, the vaccine does help reduce your risk (but, again, the risk isn’t zero).
“That’s a place where people are breathing heavily and exhaling, potentially, virus, and you yourself would be doing that also,” said Lindan, who strongly suggests wearing a mask and keeping a distance from others if you go to the gym.
Is it safe to go to the dentist?
The risk here is mainly for the dentist, not the patient, Lindan explained. If the dentist is wearing the right protective gear and there’s good ventilation, transmission risk is low. “It’s probably fine to go get your teeth cleaned,” Lindan said.
The same is generally true for other doctor appointments. Don’t put off important screenings (some experts are concerned the pandemic can lead to more undetected health problems). Here’s a quick guide on what to do about certain physician visits.
The harsh truth is that scientists really don’t know right now exactly how safe any of these activities will be for people who’ve been vaccinated. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging people to continue wearing masks until herd immunity is established and cases start to dramatically decline.
Getting the vaccine means you’ve done your part to slow the spread of COVID-19, but it does not give you a free pass just yet. If we all get the shot when it’s our turn and hold on to our masks for a little longer, we can knock COVID-19 out relatively quickly.
Being vaccinated is “a big step forward in getting beyond this,” Thompson said, “but we’re going to get beyond this as a community, not as individuals.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
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