As of last week, more than 37 million people in the U.S. have received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to a tally by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Another 13 million people have received their second dose, fully completing their vaccination series against Covid-19.
With many already immunized against the virus, the questions are: When can we start to think about visiting family or planning a social gathering? Being vaccinated can ease anxiety about going out, but even people who have had both doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine will still need to follow public health guidance of wearing a well-fitted mask and social distancing.
“Fully vaccinated” means at least two weeks have passed since a person has received the second dose of a two-dose vaccine or one dose of a single-dose vaccine.
NBC News asked vaccine experts what they would feel comfortable doing once fully vaccinated.
Is it safe to visit family?
Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s leading public health advisers, told Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s “TODAY” show that he is often asked if it’s safe to get together without some of the public health measures like masking and social distancing.
“The answer, ultimately, is going to be yes,” he said during the interview Thursday.
However, that’s if everyone in the group is fully vaccinated. Fauci urged more caution if only one party has received the vaccine, since people who have been vaccinated could potentially harbor virus in their nose and transmit it to others.
“That’s the reason why we say, until we have the overwhelming majority of people vaccinated, and the level of virus is very low, if you’re vaccinated, it would be prudent to wear a mask,” Fauci said.
While we don’t yet know the extent of how much the vaccine limits transmission, early data from Moderna and AstraZeneca suggests a modest protection against asymptomatic infection, and therefore a lower ability to spread the virus.
“We don’t know so much about whether or not [the vaccines] are able to prevent infection, meaning you might become infected and unwittingly transmitted to others,” said William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “That’s something we are still learning about.”
While these vaccines are some of the greatest scientific achievements Hanage has seen in his career, immediately going back to pre-pandemic life is not a good idea, he cautioned.
Like Fauci, Hanage agreed that if both he and his older family members had received the vaccine he would feel safe giving them a hug — but only if both parties had completed their vaccine series.
“One of the best things about the vaccine is as it’s rolled out to people who are older and more vulnerable to disease, it’s going to be much easier to have contact with them,” Hanage said.
Dr. Jay Varkey, an associate professor of infectious disease at Emory University in Atlanta, said that while he has completed his vaccine series and his parents are close to doing the same, he would only feel safe giving them a hug if community transmission rates are low. He added that if his older family members were essential workers, he would give it even more time.
“If my family members were out and about in the community as essential workers, having to work in factories or in school settings where they’re intermixed with many other people, many of whom are not vaccinated, I would hold off a little bit longer,” Varkey said.
Is it safe to gather indoors?
Infectious disease experts also had differing opinions on whether they would feel safe gathering indoors with friends.
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease physician at UCSF Health, has suggested the formation of “immunity bubbles” with other members who have also been vaccinated. Within the bubble, friends and family who are fully vaccinated can gather without masks or social distancing.
For example, Chin-Hong has a group of five to seven colleagues at work who have completed their vaccine series and is looking forward to having them over for dinner. Within these bubbles, it is safe to gather without masks and social distancing.
“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 told NBC News on Thursday during a “Doc to Doc” Facebook Live interview with senior medical correspondent Dr. John Torres. “These are all things that I’ve deferred for more than a year, and I can’t wait to do that.”
Hanage urged a little more caution with gathering indoors without masks temporarily, until the virus becomes more under control in the community.
“We are going to need to keep an eye on this virus. It’s very sneaky, so be cautious,” Hanage said. “If I were in that situation, I’d keep my mask on for now, but I would be looking forward to taking it off.”
While experts had differing opinions on what is safe after being vaccinated, they all agreed on one thing: Don’t lose the mask when in out in public settings.
“Other people don’t know you’ve been vaccinated, so by wearing a mask you’re showing that whether or not you’re vaccinated, you’re still looking out for them,” Hanage said.