As tens of millions of Americans receive their first or second doses of the coronavirus vaccine, it’s understandable that people may be wondering when it will be safe to see loved ones and to visit family again. After all, what good is a vaccine if we can’t resume some semblance of normal, pre-pandemic life?
But as with many things relating to COVID-19, the answer, unfortunately, isn’t quite so straightforward.
The vaccine manufactured by Pfizer provides 95% efficacy against COVID-19, while the Moderna vaccine is 94.1% effective. Both vaccines take approximately two weeks from the second dose for a person to become fully vaccinated. And though the vaccines currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration protect against severe infection, there is still a small chance of becoming infected with the coronavirus.
By that logic, a vaccinated person could become infected with COVID-19, and that means you can’t rule out that the same individual could potentially infect others—particularly when you consider more than half of cases are spread by asymptomatic carriers.
Another complicating factor is that there is just not enough research on the current vaccines to understand whether fully vaccinated individuals can still carry and transmit the virus to others, even if they do not become infected themselves. So even if you may be vaccinated, you could still pose a health risk to family and friends who are not. (Though, promising early data from Moderna and AstraZeneca suggests modest protection against asymptomatic infection.)
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spoke to that point during a Feb. 11 appearance on the Today show. He did, however, offer a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.
“In essence, ultimately yes,” Fauci told Savannah Guthrie when asked if it was going to be safe for older Americans to visit with their children and grandchildren and other family after getting the vaccine. “The thing you would like to see is if you have two parties vaccinated. If I’m vaccinated, and my daughter who lives in Boston comes home, and she’s vaccinated, we can pull back on restrictions.”
“We can sit down together without a mask, we can give each other a hug, and the answer, ultimately, is going to be yes,” Fauci added. However, he stressed that families should wait until everyone is vaccinated before visiting grandparents, who may potentially harbor the virus in their nasal cavities.
“That’s why we say until we have the overwhelming majority of people vaccinated, and the level of virus is very low—when you’re vaccinated, it still would be prudent to wear a mask,” Fauci said.
Until we achieve herd immunity, Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease physician at UCSF Health, told NBC News that “immunity bubbles” may be a reasonable workaround to socialize with friends and family. Similar to so-called “pandemic pods,” these bubbles would be an ideal way for fully vaccinated groups to gather without masks or social distancing.
Chin-Hong said that even he has plans to invite a group of work colleagues who have completed their vaccine series to his home for dinner.
“We would wear masks before entering my home or dinner space, but once in there, I think I’d feel comfortable with everyone taking the masks off, sitting around the table, watching a football game, or listening to music,” Chin-Hong said during a Facebook Live interview segment. “These are all things that I’ve deferred for more than a year, and I can’t wait to do that.”
And in more encouraging news, Fauci believes that “as we get into March and April,” it’s going to be “open season” on COVID-19 vaccinations. “Namely, virtually everybody and anybody, in any category, could start to get vaccinated,” Fauci said.
Fauci believes that by that point, “just logistically,” it would then take several more months to get the vaccine into people’s arms and that by the end of the summer, we can accomplish the goal of getting the overwhelming majority of people in the United States vaccinated. Then, after so many people receive the vaccine, it would be almost completely safe for everybody to visit their family they might not have seen for more than a year.
But in the meantime, it’s just as important as ever to continue with safety precautions, including wearing masks and avoiding close contact with unvaccinated individuals.