What can I do once I'm vaccinated? The CDC finally has answers

The CDC urges Americans to take small steps to post-COVID life — yet states like Texas are flouting the advice

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 3, 2021 5:57PM (EST)

Baby steps toward post-COVID life (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Baby steps toward post-COVID life (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is preparing to release guidelines for how people who have received COVID-19 vaccines can prepare to transition to normal life. The name of the game seems to be: Baby steps.

Although the CDC guidance has not been formally released yet (it is expected to come out as early as Thursday), Politico reports that it will offer advice on the extent to which vaccinated Americans can relax self-imposed restrictions on socializing and traveling. Among other things, Americans who have been fully vaccinated — meaning, received two shots in the case of Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, or one shot for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — will be able to safely have small, maskless gatherings.

"I use the example of a daughter coming in from out of town who is doubly vaccinated, and a husband and wife doubly vaccinated, and maybe a next-door neighbor who you know are doubly vaccinated," President Joe Biden's chief medical officer Dr. Anthony Fauci told reporters on Monday. "Small gatherings in the home of people, I think you can clearly feel that the risk — the relative risk is so low that you would not have to wear a mask, that you could have a good social gathering within the home."

"All I can say is that I'm glad they're doing this because I think that it's important for people to understand that there's a benefit of getting vaccinated," Dr. Carlos del Rio, Distinguished Professor of Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, told Salon. "I think we need to start telling people what things you can do once you've been vaccinated."

He added that he already has social plans for the weekend, ones that are in accordance with CDC guidelines.

"This coming weekend, a doctor and his wife — who are both fully vaccinated — and me and my wife who are fully vaccinated are getting together for dinner," he explained. "We're going to sit at a table apart [from each other]. We're not going to sit right next to each other. We'll sit socially distanced while we eat."

Del Rio's own behavior may seem like an exercise in extreme caution for those that are vaccinated. Indeed, he noted that, in general, he was merely advising that people continue socializing outside if possible, with a small number of people, and to wear one's mask when not eating. If everyone in one's group is fully vaccinated, such caution is not necessary; but "if you are in a small group where there are people vaccinated and not, then yes," he added.

Dr. Russell Medford, Chairman of the Center for Global Health Innovation and Global Health Crisis Coordination Center, expressed a similar view to Salon.

"I have not yet seen the specific CDC guidelines to comment on," Medford told Salon by text message. "Nevertheless, as more Americans complete their full COVID-19 vaccinations, I suspect that CDC guidelines will initially reflect a gradual easing of personal and family-based restrictions that will be extended to the broader community as the new case rate falls to levels dramatically lower than they are today."

Dr. del Rio's and Dr. Medford's observations underscore a growing belief among some in the medical community that people need to see that there are immediate benefits to getting vaccinated.

"There has been, I think, an overemphasis on things not changing when you're vaccinated — and I think that really is underselling the benefits of this vaccine," Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center, told Salon last month. "I tell people to pursue whatever activities they want to pursue as long as they're vaccinated and wait two weeks [after the second dose], and if you're doing activities with another vaccinated person on the same timeline, there's really no issue at all."

It is also important to note that, while the CDC is concerned about the spread of mutant coronavirus variants leading to a surge in infections, the approved vaccines have been able to 100 percent prevent severe cases.

"All of the approved vaccines in the U.S. provide 100 percent protection from severe COVID-19 disease that requires hospitalization, even when the trials were conducted in regions in which the variants are circulating," Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California–San Francisco, told Salon by email earlier this week. She added that "reinfection with variants leading to a symptomatic infection after vaccination or natural infection is rare."

While experts believe that baby steps toward normalcy may be possible, however, they still agree that Americans need to exercise caution. In that vein, the CDC's upcoming guidelines will still encourage that Americans wear masks in public, socially distance in public, avoid large gatherings with unvaccinated people who are not masked and vigilantly maintain their personal hygiene by washing their hands.

These guidelines run athwart recent actions taken by states like Texas and Mississippi, where Govs. Greg Abbott and Tate Reeves announced earlier this week that they are ending all mask mandates and completely reopening the states' economies. Biden responded to this news by denouncing it as "Neanderthal thinking."

"I am very concerned about steps taken by states like Texas to prematurely open," Medford told Salon. "As we have already and unfortunately seen happen in this pandemic over the year, the premature lifting of effective and sensible public health measures, such as mask wearing and moderating commercial operations, runs the very real risk of igniting new surges in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and death."

This story was updated at 7:06pm with additional comments from Dr. Carlos del Rio. 

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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