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Susan Maxwell Trumble displays her vaccination card after being inoculated with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at South Shore University Hospital, March 3, 2021, in Bay Shore, N.Y. (AP) Susan Maxwell Trumble displays her vaccination card after being inoculated with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at South Shore University Hospital, March 3, 2021, in Bay Shore, N.Y. (AP)

Susan Maxwell Trumble displays her vaccination card after being inoculated with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at South Shore University Hospital, March 3, 2021, in Bay Shore, N.Y. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson March 11, 2021
Samantha Putterman
By Samantha Putterman March 11, 2021

If Your Time is short

  • Fully vaccinated people can gather indoors with others who are fully vaccinated without masks or physical distancing, according to new CDC recommendations. They can also visit indoors with unvaccinated people from a single household who are considered to be at low risk of severe COVID-19.

  • The science isn’t solid yet on whether vaccinated people can still transmit the virus, though the initial data looks promising. For now, experts say people who are vaccinated should still wear masks and practice social distancing in public spaces to ensure others are protected.

  • Fully vaccinated people do not have to quarantine or undergo testing after exposure to the virus, as long as they’re not experiencing any symptoms, the CDC says. They do need to adhere to the same testing requirements for travel as those who are unvaccinated.

Tens of millions of Americans who have received their COVID-19 vaccines can now entertain the prospect of boldly going places, seeing people and doing things again, even if a return to normal life remains a ways off.

The first set of public health recommendations for vaccinated people, released March 8 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says those who are two weeks past their final COVID-19 vaccine shot are considered fully vaccinated and can have more freedom to socialize and engage in routine daily activities.

President Joe Biden has said that by late May, there will be enough supply for every adult who wants a shot.

But we’re still in an odd period. While the pace of inoculations continues to increase in the U.S. — with almost 2.2 million people getting a shot every day — only about 10% of the population is considered fully vaccinated, as of March 10. And, while early data is promising, the science isn’t settled on whether people who are vaccinated can still spread the virus to those who aren’t.

So for now, the CDC’s recommendations come with an added dose of caution.

The CDC said its guidance is a first step to returning to everyday activities and that it will update and expand the recommendations based on community spread of the virus, and as more people get vaccinated.

Here’s a look at which activities officials and public health experts say are OK for vaccinated people, and which ones to remain cautious about. 

Can fully vaccinated people gather with others?

Fully vaccinated people can gather indoors with others who are fully vaccinated, without the need for masks or physical distancing, the CDC says. 

They may also visit indoors with unvaccinated people from a single household who are considered to be at low risk of severe COVID-19. Because children are considered at lower risk of severe coronavirus complications, this means that most vaccinated grandparents can finally visit with their grandchildren.

The CDC does caution that these types of gatherings should remain relatively small, with the safest situations being get-togethers in private settings, such as dinner at home.

Still, for fully vaccinated people, some health experts say that being in a restaurant is now a lot safer than it was just a few weeks ago.

"It’s much better for everyone — the restaurant, the diners and yourself — for restaurants to be filled with vaccinated people," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease doctor and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, said indoor dining shouldn’t be a problem as long as restaurants maintain masking of staff and distancing between tables until significant herd immunity is reached.

What about travel and larger gatherings?

With about 90% of the population still short of a full vaccination and the virus still circulating at high levels, health officials say that even people who have been vaccinated should forgo attending medium-size and large gatherings, and wait to resume any nonessential long-distance travel.

"Every time that there’s a surge in travel, we have a surge in cases in this country," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a March 8 White House press briefing. "We know that many of our variants have emerged from international places, and we know that the travel corridor is a place where people are mixing a lot." 

She added: "We’re hopeful that our next set of guidance will have more science around what vaccinated people can do, perhaps travel being among them."

Travel remains a sticky subject, and advice varies depending on who is asked. Some experts believe that once a person is vaccinated, such travel is low-risk.

Adalja, for instance, said it’s better to have vaccinated people traveling than those who haven’t received a shot.

"The CDC guidelines kind of ignores the fact that people are traveling, and have been traveling throughout this pandemic," he said. "If you’re fully vaccinated and she’s fully vaccinated, get on the plane and go see your grandmother. The best time to fly is when you're fully vaccinated."

But during a CNN Global Town Hall, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned that vaccination should not be considered a "free pass to travel."

Vaccinated people who travel still need to follow the same requirements as those who are unvaccinated, including wearing masks on planes and trains and in airports and stations. All international travelers are required to show proof that they have tested negative for the virus before flying to the U.S. 

Would vaccinated people still have to quarantine or get tested after exposure?

No, fully vaccinated people do not have to quarantine or undergo testing after exposure to the virus, as long as they’re not experiencing any symptoms, the CDC said. Anyone experiencing symptoms, however, should get tested.

"The CDC has said only quarantine if you are symptomatic after an exposure," said Gandhi, the UCSF doctor. "By extension, there would be no reason to test after an exposure unless you are symptomatic."

Key unanswered questions

Experts say there are still several unanswered questions and gray areas.

For example, observational data suggests transmission of the virus is reduced among vaccinated people, but the science isn’t conclusive. Because of this, the CDC is being cautious, recommending that fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks and practice social distancing in public settings to help protect others.

"Clinical trials of the vaccines couldn’t quite answer whether vaccination would protect against transmitting COVID," said Nicole Gatto, an associate professor of public health at Claremont Graduate University. "It seems that we are learning that this may be the case. I think the guidance is appropriately cautious and balanced. We can expect updates as more people become vaccinated."

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, agreed and told MSNBC host Chris Hayes that "all the evidence on these vaccines suggest that they do reduce transmission. Probably not 100%, but a lot — 80 or 90% — a very large amount. We haven’t nailed it down perfectly, but there is so much circumstantial evidence that these vaccines reduce transmission that I think we can feel comfortable that they do."

Another area of uncertainty is that the vaccines may not be equally effective in everyone, and might be less effective in people who have compromised immune systems. 

Dr. Matthew Laurens, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at the University of Maryland, said he would like to see some caveats added to the recommendations for these people.

"From my perspective, these individuals should still practice all safety measures to avoid COVID-19 transmission," Laurens wrote in an email. "According to the CDC, such individuals should discuss with their provider should they have any questions about their individual situation. To go a step further, I would suggest that fully vaccinated people who live in households with an individual who is immunocompromised should also practice all safety measures to avoid COVID-19 transmission."

Other key unanswered questions, experts told us, include how long vaccine-induced protection will last; whether an annual booster dose will be necessary; how long routine COVID-19 testing will be required for various activities; whether the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine would be followed by a second dose, as a trial is currently investigating; and when and under what restrictions will it be safe for people to return to the workplace. 

Brooke Nichols, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, said the key unanswered question to her, as a scientist and as someone living through the pandemic, is what the next set of guidelines will look like.

"When will 'Take precautions in public like wearing a well-fitted mask and physical distancing' no longer be a requirement?" she said. "When will life feel normal again?"

For that answer, we will just have to wait.

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Our Sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People, March 8, 2021 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States, Accessed March 10, 2021

New York Times, See How the Vaccine Rollout Is Going in Your State, Updated March 9, 2021 

WhiteHouse.gov, Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials, March 8, 2021

Washington Post, Fully vaccinated people can visit with nearby grandchildren, dine indoors with one another, CDC says, March 8, 2021

YouTube, MSNBC: Live with Chris Hayes, March 8, 2021 

Email interview with Nicole Gatto, associate professor of public health at Claremont Graduate University, March 9, 2021

Email interview with Natlie Dean, biostatistician at the University of Florida, March 9, 2021

Email interview with Matthew Laurens, pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland, March 9, 2021

Email interview with Brooke Nichols, infectious disease mathematical modeler at the Boston University School of Public Health, March 9, 2021

Phone interview with Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, March 9, 2021

Email interview with Dr. Monica Gandhi, infectious disease physician and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, March 10, 2021

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