White House chief medical officer Anthony Fauci said he would not go to restaurants or movie theaters despite being vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say vaccinated people should continue to mask indoors and avoid large gatherings. News outlets have reported "breakthrough infections" from Covid-19 among those fully vaccinated.
All of this can make it seem like vaccination isn't enough to rid people of the fear of disease and the precautions they have taken over the past year to avoid the coronavirus. So I asked experts I spoke to during the pandemic about precautionary measures related to Covid: How concerned are you about your personal safety after vaccination?
They almost agreed in their answer: They no longer worry much, if at all, about their personal risk of contracting Covid-19. Some have spoken of going to restaurants and cinemas, socializing with friends and family, and visiting elderly relatives for extended periods now that they are vaccinated.
"I'm not particularly concerned about getting sick myself," said Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University. "I know my chances of developing serious symptoms are slim if I get somehow infected."
But over time, they also see that these worries about others become less necessary.
“It's about protecting others. Vaccination essentially makes me safe,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard University. “There's also growing evidence that breakthrough cases are less likely to be transmitted (they have lower viral loads ). By vaccinating, I am already helping to protect others. "But I will continue to pursue behaviors that are compatible with lower contact rates in the community as a whole. As more and more are protected by vaccinations, I will need less and less."
As vaccination rates rise and daily incidences and deaths fall, people should feel more comfortable relaxing precautionary measures and moving the world back to pre-pandemic times. That could happen sooner than you think – Israel's experience shows that once around 60 percent of the population is vaccinated, cases could decline sharply, a point that could be just a month or two away in the US. And since 46 percent of Americans have received a dose so far, cases in the US have already decreased.
As more people receive the vaccine, it is advisable to continue masking and avoiding large gatherings, and to share their stories with people who have been vaccinated and encourage their friends and family to get vaccinated as well. But that's not because those who are vaccinated are in trouble. Despite the spread of the variants, experts agree that vaccinated people shouldn't worry too much about their own risk for Covid-19.
The vaccines are really that good for your personal safety
The clinical and real-world evidence for the vaccines is pretty clear now: they are extremely effective in protecting a person from Covid-19.
In clinical trials, the two-shot vaccines Moderna and Pfizer / BioNTech were estimated to be over 95 percent, and that of Johnson & Johnson's single vaccines at over 70 percent. All three vaccines also increased the risk of hospitalization and death to near zero.
The real evidence has confirmed this. In Israel, the country with the most advanced vaccination campaign, data shows the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine is more than 90 percent effective at preventing infection, with more symptomatic illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths being blocked. You can see this in the country's overall statistics: after Israel almost fully reopened its economy in March and the majority of the population received at least one dose, the daily new Covid-19 cases fell by more than 95 percent. And daily deaths are now in the single digits and sometimes zero.
Research also shows that the vaccines are effective against the coronavirus variants discovered so far. While some variants seem better able to bypass immunity, the vaccines are so powerful that they still largely overwhelm and defeat the variants in the end.
This evidence has made experts confident that the vaccines will enable them to stop worrying about their own Covid-19 risk. "I am fully vaccinated and have resumed my normal activities," said Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor at the University of California in San Francisco. "I went into the hall, went to my first cinema and went to a bar when there was an opportunity!"
The reduced concern also applies to others who are vaccinated. Smith spoke of a visit from her fully vaccinated in-laws this coming weekend – "the first time since December 2019 that we've seen her in person."
There have been some groundbreaking Covid-19 cases among those who were vaccinated. But they are usually milder infections that are less likely to be transmitted and are far from common. "That's less than 0.01 percent of those vaccinated," Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale School of Medicine, told me, citing CDC data. "So extremely rare!"
To the extent that some experts are still on the safe side, they pointed to an abundance of caution – and a lack of interest in certain activities.
“I go out to eat, but still only outdoors. I want to be completely relaxed for a dining experience in the restaurant. I feel safest outside with people I don't know to eat without a mask, ”Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, an epidemiologist at UC San Francisco, told me. "I haven't been to bars, concerts, or theaters, but that probably reflects the fact that I'm a pretty boring person."
Some admitted that their continued caution was a habit that needed to be broken: after a year of worrying about the virus, it will take time to return to a pre-pandemic mentality. "I'm not too concerned about my own safety," Jorge Salinas, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa, told me. “I think it's mostly a matter of habit. I think it's okay to go back to restaurants, but I still have takeaway. But whoever is vaccinated and feels ready, I think it is safe for them to do so in most places. "
The ongoing precautionary measures are really about keeping others safe
The only reason experts consistently pointed to continued precautionary measures: the need to protect those who are not vaccinated. "We probably won't be doing any indoor activities for now because we have an unvaccinated 7-year-old at home," said Smith. “The risk of catching something and giving it to him is small, but after all this time avoiding indoor spaces and being careful, a movie or dinner in a restaurant just doesn't seem worthwhile when we're still at home great theater and takeaway options. As soon as they are all vaccinated, they are back in our rotation. "
Some recent research has found that the vaccines can reduce the likelihood that one vaccinated person will pass the virus on to others. The CDC summarized such a real-world study for the Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna vaccines and showed that the vaccines not only stop symptoms, but also stop overall infections and thus transmission:
The results showed that after the second dose of vaccine (the recommended number of doses), the risk of infection was reduced by 90 percent two or more weeks after vaccination. After a single dose of either vaccine, participants' risk of infection with SARS-CoV-2 decreased by 80 percent two or more weeks after vaccination.
However, in the typically cautious worlds of science and public health, experts want to see a little more research and data before explaining that vaccinated people can throw away their masks and congregate indoors in large numbers. (Some experts also said they could potentially continue to mask and avoid crowded interiors during the flu season after such measures appeared to fight the flu over the past year.)
Even if the vaccine was found to reduce transmission, it would be safer for anyone who can be vaccinated to get the shot. And the more people take their pictures, the safer it is to take some precautionary measures.
To this end, experts recommended watching some numbers for the future: the vaccination rate and new cases or hospitalizations every day. When vaccination rates rise locally and exceed 50 or 60 percent, a vaccinated person can feel much safer going out without worrying about potentially infecting others. And when cases and hospital stays go down, a vaccinated person can also be confident that there isn't much of the virus – further reducing the chances of infection and spread.
In the meantime, those who are already vaccinated can speed up the process by encouraging their friends, family, and co-workers to get the shot. Surveys consistently show that around 1 in 3 unvaccinated people wait for other people around them to be vaccinated first before doing so. Sharing vaccination stories could give people the boost they need.
"I am very aware that while I am vaccinated many are still not," Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at George Mason University, told me. “So I'm still vigilant when I wear my mask while running errands in public or when I interact with servers (and other customers) when I go to an outdoor restaurant, even though I'm not really worried about mine own risk makes you sick. "