Recently, I went to my first fairly large social gathering in more than a year. I was fully vaccinated and the event was outdoors. I asked my trusted friends at this party if they were vaccinated and if the answer was yes, I gave them a hug. And it felt so good!
As of July 18, 2021, over 5.6 million people in Pennsylvania have been fully vaccinated, and that number is growing. At Independence LIVE alone, the team from vybe urgent care administered more than 22,000 COVID vaccines between March 1 and June 14, 2021. It’s wonderful to see people embracing these vaccines and the protection they provide.
COVID-19 vaccines are truly a ray of hope for an end to this pandemic. If you are fully vaccinated, there is about a 95 percent chance that you will be protected against COVID-19 infection even if you’re exposed. And the more people get vaccinated, the less opportunities the coronavirus will have to keep spreading.
If you are able to receive the vaccine, I hope you and the people you care about have been vaccinated or are planning to do so very soon.
If you have already recovered from COVID-19, vaccination is still important. There is strong evidence that receiving both doses of a vaccine provides stronger protection against the dangerous new coronavirus variants than natural infection does.
But life after vaccination is an entirely new landscape. We all have to learn how to get around in it.
What Activities Are Safe After Vaccination?
I have been following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s guidance since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But that guidance is constantly evolving as we learn more about the coronavirus and the real-world effectiveness of the vaccines.
The CDC currently says that if you are fully vaccinated, you can resume most everyday activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing. (“Except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” This means your favorite coffee shop or store may still require you to wear a mask inside. Please respect the decisions those businesses are making to protect their employees!)
As a physician, I’m not so comfortable throwing all my former precautions aside (nor are some of my colleagues). I still have two children who are too young to be vaccinated. My chances of becoming infected with the coronavirus, and passing it on to them, are very small … but they are not zero.
So my policy is, if I’m around people that are vaccinated and we are outside, taking off my mask is fine. When I’m indoors and I don’t know the vaccination status of the people around me — like when I’m at the supermarket — I wear a mask.
I will eat at a restaurant if there is outdoors seating. I don’t dine indoors.
Three Reasons Why We May Want to Keep Masking
1. Modeling good behavior
My unvaccinated children now have tan lines on their faces from wearing masks all the time. But it’s been a long, difficult year. If I want them to keep it up, I feel I have to continue modeling mask wearing around them.
And while it may be safe to go around in public without a mask on once you are fully vaccinated … other people can’t tell your vaccination status by looking at you. And I don’t feel comfortable trusting everyone to be honest about their vaccination status.
I’m concerned that we will pivot too quickly towards acting like everyone is vaccinated, and therefore stop social distancing and wearing a mask. I would rather see us continue to model mask wearing for each other, and for those around us that cannot get the vaccine due to their age or medical reasons.
2. Protecting all those around you
If you are unvaccinated, you are putting yourself and everyone around you at risk by going around unmasked.
Remember, not everyone is able to get vaccinated. Some people who are immunosuppressed will not even develop enough antibodies from vaccination to protect them.
Yet these same people are at very high risk of serious illness from coronavirus infection. This makes it all the more important that everyone around them does get vaccinated and does wear a mask.
3. Reducing transmission of other diseases
I would add that ever since we started wearing masks to protect ourselves against COVID-19, many fewer Americans have gotten sick with influenza and other respiratory viruses. So it turns out that mask wearing is a very effective public health measure in general!
Many people in Asian countries such as Japan, Taiwan, and China have practiced mask wearing in public for decades — especially after the 2002 outbreak of sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). They do this not just to avoid spreading viruses but also to protect themselves against air pollution. If mask wearing likewise becomes a habit here in the United States, it could benefit us in a number of ways.
How Long Will Vaccination Immunity Last?
Honestly, we don’t know how long being vaccinated will protect you against COVID-19 infection. Data from two recent studies suggest that immunity may last at least a year, and possibly longer. Scott Hensley, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the research, says, “Immunity elicited by infection and vaccination for SARS-CoV-2 appears to be long-lived.”
But there are still many unknowns. And especially given the way viruses tend to mutate, it seems likely that we may all need boosters at some point. For this reason, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Processes (ACIP) is planning to meet to discuss whether COVID-19 booster vaccines are likely to be needed, how often they should be received, and how they should be formulated.
Vaccines and Masks Aside … Let’s Support Each Other
This pandemic has been incredibly difficult for all of us…and much worse for some than for others. Its disproportionate impact on communities of color has revealed tragic systemic health inequities both in the U.S. and worldwide. (I honestly can’t read news stories about India without crying.)
Without the advent of vaccines, I have no doubt that COVID-19 would continue ravaging every continent around the globe. So we must embrace vaccination as the lifeline that it is.
But just as importantly, we must care for one another. We must reach out to our fellow human beings, lift each other up, and help each other rebuild our lives and our mental health.
Part of that means not judging each other. I hear people getting criticized all the time because they are “still wearing masks,” or are embracing a return to normal too slowly or too quickly.
You can’t see into other people’s hearts. You don’t know what they have been through. So please practice compassion and patience.
But if you are truly feeling emotionally overwhelmed, I urge you to seek help. Do it for your loved ones. Do it for yourself. You are worth it.