How to make sense of the new CDC rules for vaccinated people

Got vaccinated? Here’s what the CDC says you can (and can’t) do.

Covid-19 vaccines
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For the past year, the world has eagerly awaited the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines. From the start, it was clear that with this kind of highly transmissible virus an effective vaccine was our best bet for returning to something resembling normalcy.

Now that we have several vaccines with FDA emergency-use approval, and over 30 million people in the United States have been fully vaccinated, that promise feels closer than ever to becoming a reality. But until yesterday, the fully vaccinated had few guidelines about what they could do. Only 9.34 percent of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated — far from where we need to be to achieve herd immunity — and it was unclear how cautious the fully vaccinated should be around the unvaccinated.

Guidelines released Monday by the Center for Disease Control offer the clearest directive yet for how to mitigate the risk of coronavirus transmission while so many of us are still unvaccinated.

Some highlights for the fully vaccinated from the new guidelines are:

  • You can socialize with fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks.
  • You can socialize with unvaccinated people indoors without masks — if everyone is from one other household and everyone is at low risk for severe disease.
  • You can refrain from quarantine and testing if you have contact with someone who has Covid-19 — if you do not have symptoms.

When are you fully vaccinated against Covid-19?

While it is likely the vaccines prevent transmission to some degree, that hasn’t been definitively proven just yet. It’s just as important for those of us who haven’t been vaccinated to pay attention to the CDC’s guidelines as it is for those who have been fully vaccinated.

First, it’s important to note what they mean by “fully vaccinated.” If you’ve received a vaccine that required two doses — like Moderna or Pfizer — you’re considered fully vaccinated two or more weeks after your second shot. If you got the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you’re considered fully vaccinated two weeks after you get the jab.

The CDC rules for fully vaccinated, explained

The biggest change from the CDC’s previous guidelines is the ability to socialize indoors without masks.

Fully vaccinated people can be maskless indoors with other fully vaccinated people, according to the CDC. But the new recommendation goes even further: unvaccinated people can be indoors with vaccinated people from one household. The CDC gives the example of relatives who all live in one household visiting with other relatives who all live in one household. You can even give your vaccinated relatives a hug!

Prepared doses of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine.

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There’s an important caveat, though: If any of the unvaccinated people are at increased risk for severe illness, or live with someone who is at high risk for severe disease, all the usual precautions (masks, distance, good ventilation) should be taken.

It’s important to stress that these guidelines are for small gatherings. When so many people are unvaccinated, all of us — vaccinated and not — still need to stay away from large gatherings. Further, nothing about the guidelines for public spaces has changed. When in public, we should continue our masks and keep our distance.

Precautions vaccinated people should take

It’s also still not time to take that vacation you’ve been dreaming of since 2019. Stefan Baral, a physician epidemiologist and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, tells Inverse it makes sense to keep the restrictions in place for public spaces and travel, considering business owners have no way of knowing who is and isn’t vaccinated. If you do have to travel, follow the CDC’s travel guidelines.

The CDC stresses that even if you’ve been fully vaccinated, if you start feeling sick and/or develop symptoms of COVID-19, you should still get tested. Remember, this only applies two weeks after the final shot. If you feel sick the day after you get your shot, that’s probably just a temporary reaction from your body producing the necessary antibodies to fight off the virus.

The CDC and Baral also stress what we still don’t know. The main question on most epidemiologists' minds is whether inoculation slows transmission, and if so, by how much.

“If people can still be infected subclinically [without symptoms], they may be able to transmit that virus to other people,” Baral says.

“This is why the CDC is still cautioning that people at high risk for severe disease shouldn’t socialize with full vaccinated people unless they can all wear masks and social distance.”

Still, Baral thinks the data show that there is some reduction in transmission.

“I believe it is clear that vaccination does result in a reduction in the risk of virus transmission which may be related to lower peak viral loads and lower symptom burden,” he says.

But he stresses the extent to which transmission is slowed is still “unclear.” But anecdotal data is promising. “Increasing data are showing real-world reductions in cases with increasing vaccination in addition to reductions in hospitalization and deaths,” he explains.

Does the Covid-19 vaccine protect against variants?

There’s also some debate over whether the coronavirus variants will cause further surges. For now, the CDC says they don’t know definitively but “early data show the vaccines may work against some variants but could be less effective against others.”

Baral tells Inverse that some epidemiologists expect the variants to cause another surge of infections, but he’s not one of them.

“The vaccines may not prevent infections to the same extent as the variant, but they do seem to prevent severe infections to the same extent,” he says. “I don’t believe this huge wave will come.”

If Baral is proved correct and we don’t get a huge wave of infections, he thinks we should “use the summer well to vaccinate efficiently.” He’d also like to see us vaccinate more equitably, ensuring that high-risk groups like essential workers, lower-income communities, incarcerated people, undocumented people, and people experiencing homelessness are all able to be vaccinated.

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