New guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention open up the world just a bit for those fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But don’t toss away your collection of masks just yet.
“This isn’t an invitation for a free-for-all,” said Michael Ben-Aderet, MD, associate medical director of Hospital Epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai.
“The virus is not yet defeated. All of us need to remain vigilant but those who are completely vaccinated can enjoy a bit more freedom.”
The CDC declared it safe for vaccinated people to gather together in small groups, indoors, without wearing masks or observing social distancing.
Vaccinated people can also safely enjoy small indoor, unmasked gatherings with those who aren’t vaccinated but are considered at low risk for developing severe COVID-19.
For example, vaccinated grandparents can now safely visit grandchildren they might not have seen in a year.
“That’s a big deal,” Ben-Aderet said. “It’s really allowing people to have meaningful connections that they’ve put off for so long.”
The new guidelines apply only to people who are fully vaccinated, meaning that it has been at least two weeks since they received their second dose of a two-dose vaccine from Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech, or a single dose of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The two-week time frame gives the body time to build up the full immunity the vaccines provide.
The agency didn’t give specific guidelines about what constitutes a “small gathering,” but Ben-Aderet advises that the more important issue is being careful about who is in attendance.
“It’s really meant to just add to the conversation about risk,” Ben-Aderet said. “We know that if you are a vaccinated person, you are at a very low risk of getting COVID. You are at a very low risk of shedding COVID. But these low risks don’t mean no risk.”
For instance, even fully vaccinated people need to wear face coverings, maintain physical distancing, and stay outdoors if they are visiting someone who is immunocompromised, has active cancer, is pregnant, or is part of another group considered at high risk of developing severe COVID-19.
And everyone, vaccinated or not, still is advised to wear a well-fitted face mask and maintain at least six feet of distance from others when out in public, and to avoid large gatherings.
CDC travel advisories remain in place, and people should still stay at home if they feel ill and be tested for COVID-19 if they develop symptoms.
The CDC issued the guidance in an effort to entice more people to get vaccinated, and to allow those who are vaccinated to begin to resume their normal lives, Ben-Aderet said.
“The whole reason for all of us to get vaccinated is so that we can resume our lives safely, without leading to another surge like what we experienced in December and January,” said Ben-Aderet.
“There’s really good evidence that there is a certain degree of safety conferred by the vaccines and there’s no reason people shouldn’t take advantage of that.”
As data comes in to show how well vaccination prevents the spread of COVID-19 in public settings, and the overall vaccination rate increases, Ben-Aderet expects the CDC to open things up even more.
“This is an important first step,” he said, “but it’s definitely not the final step.”