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You've made it through a year of social distancing, navigated the vaccine rollout system in your state, and are considered fully vaccinated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Congratulations! You followed changing protocols and made the best decision you could to keep yourself and your community safe—and congratulations to the vaccine makers, who came up with a viable vaccine in less than eight months and created the fastest vaccine rollout in history.
However, because the media can sometimes only focus on the risks and unknowns of the vaccination process, some people might be less likely to get vaccinated or feel confused on whether they should get a vaccine if one is made available to them. As of early this week, 9.2% of the U.S. population was considered fully vaccinated, so there is still a long road ahead. The good news is sharing the facts of what we now know about coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission and risks for vaccinated people can help people feel safe about being vaccinated. This is especially important to know because of the latest vaccine rollout that has been issued by President Biden, committing to have enough shots for every American adult by the end of May 2021.
But when it comes to how you behave once you've been vaccinated, there's an important nuance between public responsibility and personal choice, says Dr. Sri Banerjee, MD, PhD, an epidemiologist with 20 years of experience, including at the CDC and Johns Hopkins Hospital, who is also currently a faculty member in Walden University's PhD in Public Health program.
That's why we asked Dr. Banerjee some common questions about how to navigate social situations and health risks after you've been vaccinated, so you can make the right choice for yourself. And if you haven't gotten a vaccine yet, you can find locations with available doses at VaccineFinder.org, a partnership between the CDC, Boston Children's Hospital, and Castlight Health, and call specific locations to make an appointment. Just make sure to check state and local guidelines for your specific eligibility requirements before making an appointment.
How long does it take to build up immunity to COVID-19 after receiving the vaccine?
Two weeks, according to the CDC website, which means you're two weeks past successfully getting the full vaccine (either two jabs of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine). Dr. Banerjee says that a post-dose waiting period is typical for many vaccines, as it gives the immune system time to build the immunoglobulins, or antibodies, which will give you a better chance of not getting others sick.
Can I hang out with my friends or family if I'm fully vaccinated?
Yes! If everyone is vaccinated, you can hang out indoors in private spaces (i.e. like your home) without wearing masks and having to stay six feet apart. (Won't that feel weird and wonderful?)
If everyone isn't vaccinated, but some people are considered low risk for severe diseases, up to two households can still be together indoors at close quarters, without masks. Dr. Banerjee gives an example: "Say one of the members of that group may have something like diabetes, or another pre-existing condition, like obesity. Then this doesn't apply, and you do want to take precautions," he adds.
And if not everyone is vaccinated and some of those people are considered high risk, reconsider whether you'll spend time together inside at all. If you do, however, keep indoor gathering sizes small. "There's no magic number, but typically, 10 or fewer has been something that many states have used as a guideline," says Dr. Banerjee. Other precautions include staying six feet away from people outside your household and wearing a well-fitted mask.
In all of these cases, you should still avoid big crowds and poorly ventilated public indoor spaces until more of the population has been vaccinated (ideally 70-90% of the population, which may happen by July, according to The New York Times).
Should I wear a mask after vaccination?
Yes, if you're around high-risk people who haven't been vaccinated or any time you are in public. This is because you won't know the risk level or vaccination history of people around you and we still don't know how well the vaccine stops the spread of the virus. However, as more scientists publish research about transmission post-vaccination, says Dr. Banerjee, recommendations may change for things like travel and behavior in public places.
"You can still transmit [COVID-19] in public places to others, potentially, and place others' lives in danger. You don't know if the person dining five feet away from you has a comorbid condition. By not wearing a mask and potentially asymptomatically transmitting it, that may prove to be lethal," says Dr. Banerjee.
If I've been exposed to someone who has COVID-19 after I've been fully vaccinated, do I have to stay away from others or get tested?
Not unless you have symptoms, though you should consider staying home and getting tested anyway if you live in a group home, where multiple people are coming and going and could be higher risks of spreading the disease if you do have it, according to the CDC.
Can I still get Covid if I get the vaccine?
It's possible but not likely. Although the severity of an illness, were you to get it, should be lessened. It's important to remember that the COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) are around 95% effective at preventing COVID-19 after both doses have been received. This differs from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which claims to be 85 percent effective in preventing severe illness.
There are two general types of vaccinations, says Dr. Banerjee: ones that provide sterilizing immunity, which can stop infections entirely, like with the smallpox vaccine, and ones that provide effective immunity, which prevents a pathogen from causing serious disease.
The COVID-19 vaccines, whether Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson, all provide effective immunity; they reduce the harm a virus can do to your body, but do not eradicate it completely. "It cannot stop the virus from entering the body or making more copies of itself, meaning vaccinated people can experience illness or asymptomatic infection," he says.
How long does protection from a COVID-19 vaccine last?
Some amount of time between three months and two years, probably, says Dr. Banerjee.
A Moderna vaccine clinical trial, for instance, found that for the majority of people, there was no decline in the antibodies present in the body three months after receiving the second shot. However, people in their 70s did see significant drops in COVID-19 antibodies after three months, suggesting that vaccine duration could change by age. That study had a very small sample size, though, and more research is being done, including on the Pfizer vaccine, which showed a strong antibody response two months later.
"We are headed in the right direction, but keep in mind there are variants, mutations, unknowns," says Dr. Banerjee. As of now, the vaccines available provide protection against known variants such as the U.K. and South African strains, though they are slightly less effective against the South African strain.
If public health measures and a quick vaccine rollout help keep case numbers down, and variants don't have a chance to take off, the vaccines could last for a long time, and may not even need a booster, he adds.
Is it safe to travel after I get the COVID-19 vaccine?
Not quite yet. You should still avoid or delay non-essential trips. But if you must travel—including if you need to travel for self-care, says Dr. Banerjee—you should still follow CDC guidelines.
If you are going to travel, definitely wait those full two weeks after your last vaccination. "It's the same principle as antibiotics," says Dr. Banerjee. "If your doctor says take it for five days and you take it for three, that's not complying."
There's more to learn. But for now, it's clear that vaccines offer a lot of hope, and a big step—though not the final step—toward a return to normalcy, and that's something to celebrate.