More and more Alaskans are getting their COVID-19 vaccines, and while that makes them well-protected against illness, health experts are still urging caution before speeding back into every part of pre-pandemic life.
“While the vaccine is incredibly protective, it’s not 100% protective. And so, if we have a lot of cases and not a lot of vaccinations, we’re still going to be telling people to be careful,” said Dr. Janet Johnston, the Anchorage Health Department’s epidemiologist.
So, what does that mean for meeting up at a friend’s house after you’re vaccinated? Going out to dinner? Traveling on a plane? Or just giving someone a hug?
Johnston and four other Alaska doctors recently weighed-in on tiptoeing back to normalcy after being fully vaccinated.
When are you considered fully vaccinated?
Two weeks after your final shot, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s either two weeks after the second dose in the Pfizer or Moderna two-shot series, or two weeks after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Once I’m fully vaccinated, can I hang out at home with vaccinated friends or family I don’t live with?
Yes, says the CDC. You can even take off your face mask, and you don’t have to worry about staying 6 feet apart.
It’s a major benefit of getting vaccinated, said Dr. Tom Hennessy, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the University of Alaska Anchorage’s College of Health.
“It’s a big door-opener,” he said. “If you’re gathered with a group of fully-vaccinated people, you’re all at extremely low risk of having silent infection, and at extremely low risk of transmitting to those other vaccinated folks.”
How many people is too many to invite to an indoor gathering if everyone is fully vaccinated?
There’s no exact number.
The CDC is advising people, regardless of vaccination status, to still avoid “medium or large-sized gatherings” but doesn’t define those sizes.
Big gatherings aren’t a good idea, Hennessy said, because many people remain unvaccinated and, in some places, infection rates remain high. Also, research is ongoing into vaccines’ effectiveness against coronavirus variants.
Hennessy suggests Alaskans do their own risk-benefit analysis before crafting an invite list. You should take into account everyone’s social bubbles and any health risks, plus how big the space is and how much the virus is spreading in the community.
At Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage, Dr. David Scordino, the emergency department director, said he also considers how many different households people are from, since more households create more risk.
“The vaccine does not do 100% reduction in transmission, even if it is good,” he said. “So, building that bubble up too much, too quickly, is still probably slightly problematic.”
Johnston said she’d be comfortable with up to about 20 vaccinated people indoors.
“I mean, not 100 people, but 10, 15, 20 people, no masks, and doing whatever you want, I think you’re fine,” she said.
What if some people are unvaccinated?
The CDC says vaccinated people should spend time inside with just one unvaccinated household at a time — if you’re going to take off face masks and not stay farther apart.
That means vaccinated grandparents can spend time inside with their grandchildren, who can’t get vaccinated unless they are 16 or older in Alaska.
But things get tricky when you’re considering bringing unvaccinated kids from multiple households together inside, without masks or distancing, said Scordino.
Scordino has two young children, and he said he weighs whether the other kids’ parents are vaccinated, how many people they’re regularly socializing with, plus the spread of the virus in Anchorage.
One option he suggests is having kids spend time inside with others in their pre-existing social pods, like classrooms.
“Since they can’t be vaccinated and they’re already going to get exposed to them, it’s probably one of the better ways of going about it,” Scordino said. “If you start bringing in this huge extended family, and then you have the other social bubbles on top of that, now the bubble’s getting really big for the unvaccinated kids.”
What about eating inside at restaurants? What should I consider?
Important factors include the spacing of the tables, the level of coronavirus spread in the community and whether there’s mask requirements for staff, said Johnston.
In Anchorage, employees and customers must wear face masks, unless eating or drinking. But many other Alaska communities do not have those rules.
Johnston said she’ll consider dining in again after her husband is fully vaccinated.
“The vaccine is really, really good at protecting you against a serious disease, hospitalization and death. So I think, if you choose to go eat in a restaurant, you can feel much more comfortable that you probably aren’t going to get infected,” she said. “Still, there’s a little bit of risk, but it’s not that much.”
Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said she’s sticking to takeout for now because she doesn’t know the vaccination status of other diners in a restaurant, and everyone must take their masks off to eat.
“Even though I’m vaccinated, I could still get COVID, and I could still spread it to other people,” Zink said. “While we still have our case rates so high and vaccinations low, it’s a decision that I’m making.”
State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin also isn’t eating inside restaurants yet for the same reasons. But, he said, he has plenty of vaccinated friends who are, and who feel comfortable about it.
“It’s a decision that everybody needs to make on their own,” he said.
Can I hug a friend if they’re vaccinated?
“Yes!” said Hennessy. “It’s encouraged, actually. We can all use more hugs at this point in life as we spin out of this pandemic.”
“I went and gave my best friend a huge old hug on a run yesterday,” she said. “You can be close to people that you love if they’re also vaccinated.”
If Zink doesn’t know whether a friend is vaccinated, she said, she’ll ask first.
“It just helps me to kind of mentally calculate my need to protect them, and to keep that space and distance and wear a mask,” she said.
What about traveling by plane?
“You should feel okay traveling, if you’re fully vaccinated,” said Johnston. “But still take precautions, because case counts in various parts of the country are still high.”
Those precautions include wearing a well-fitted face mask and washing your hands often.
While airplanes have good ventilation systems, Scordino said he’d be extra cautious in the airports themselves, since everyone’s vaccination status is unknown.
“There’s ways of being selective about your decisions, in terms of certainly doing more direct flights,” he said.
The CDC says vaccinated people who travel within the country don’t need to get tested for COVID-19 before or after their trip, or quarantine when they get home.
It’s still advising vaccinated people to get tested three to five days after international travel.
How long will it be until groups of people will get back to big events, like concerts?
Before big events restart, Johnston said, she’d want to see high vaccination rates and low rates of coronavirus cases, because attendees’ vaccination status would be unknown.
“I would want to see up into the 70% vaccine coverage and the low case rates, less than five to 10 cases per 100,000 in the community,” she said.
As of Monday, Alaska still had a long way to go: 36% of eligible Alaskans statewide — those 16 and up — were fully vaccinated. The average daily case rate over the past two weeks was 22 cases per 100,00 people. Anchorage-only rates were similar.
What if I’m trying to plan or attend a wedding?
When it comes to weddings, Johnston said it’s generally easier for hosts to know whether guests are vaccinated. So the events could safely happen sooner.
Johnston said she’s considering attending a wedding this summer, but knows that most people will be vaccinated.
“A question is: Is your group of friends and family, a group where you can say, ‘We’re giving you a lot of notice, and we’re asking you to get vaccinated before you come,’” she said. “If you really can trust the people, I think you could be pretty comfortable.”
What if I’m vaccinated but exposed to someone who has the virus?
You don’t need to quarantine or get tested unless you start showing symptoms, according to the CDC. Coronavirus symptoms include fever or chills, a cough, difficulty breathing, fatigue and loss of smell.
When should I still be wearing a face mask?
When you’re close to people in a public space and you don’t know whether they’re vaccinated, Hennessy said. That’s because 70% of Alaska’s population is not fully vaccinated yet, he added.
Zink said she doesn’t wear a face mask while outside on the trails with vaccinated friends, but she is wearing one at work or in stores.
“For example, I needed a bike part fixed and I wasn’t going to ask everyone before they went in if they were vaccinated. So I wore a mask, they wore masks,” she said. “And I went in. But I felt much more comfortable doing that being fully vaccinated than I did prior to being fully vaccinated.”
We also asked the five doctors: What part of your pre-pandemic life were you most excited to return to after vaccination?
For McLaughlin, it’s seeing vaccinated friends and family inside.
“I’m a pretty social person, and I get energized by people,” he said. “It’s been so great to be able to interact with my friends and my family who are fully vaccinated, go out on hikes together and have them over for dinner, things like that, and everybody feeling safe.”
For the other doctors, it’s travel.
Zink booked a flight out of state to visit family.
Hennessy is flying to see his daughter graduate from college this spring.
“I’m not sure I would have done that, had I not been vaccinated,” he said.
Johnston is planning to visit her family on the East Coast.
“I haven’t been out of Alaska for over a year, and I really want to see them,” she said. “And so the fact that I can start planning those trips is probably the biggest thing for me.”
Meanwhile, Scordino is expecting visitors to Alaska. He has a baby who’s almost one year old, and will soon get to meet his grandparents for the first time.
Alaskans, we want to hear your answers, too: Tell us about how you’re living life differently after getting vaccinated, by emailing reporter Tegan Hanlon at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Also, let us know what other questions you have about life after vaccination.)