Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic it often seems that we are talking about what we can’t or shouldn’t do. As more and more people are being vaccinated (over 14% of the total population now in Iowa) it is time to talk about the happier side of things. What can a person do once they’ve been vaccinated? To cut to the chase, the answer is just about anything. But let’s address some of the details –
There are a few components to consider. First, how well does the vaccine protect the person who has been vaccinated? And when does that protection take effect? Second, there is the question of how well the vaccine prevents the vaccinated individual from being able to spread COVID-19 to others. Over the last couple weeks, we’ve gotten a lot more information on both of these topics.
We know that once a person is two weeks beyond their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna they themselves are approximately 95% protected from getting symptoms of COVID-19. Getting a severe form of the illness at that point is extremely unlikely. So, if someone were to ask me whether they could safely get on an airplane, go back to church, to the fitness center, to a sporting event or even the bar my answer would be the same. YES! A vaccinated person’s risk of getting severely ill from COVID is very, very low.
What about whether someone can do the same things after receiving just their first dose? The protection from the vaccine takes time, so I wouldn’t relax any precautions in the first two weeks after the first dose. After that first two weeks, though, we now have some information that indicates the protection is pretty good. It isn’t 95% like it is after the full vaccine series, but it appears to be somewhere in the range of 80-90% protection from getting symptomatic COVID-19. Severe illness is unlikely after a person is two weeks out from the first vaccine. So it is up to each person’s risk tolerance, but many people can feel comfortable restarting most of their usual activities two weeks after the first dose.
Now, just because the vaccinated person is unlikely to get sick from COVID-19 does not mean that they can’t spread it to others. It is possible for a vaccine to give enough protection to prevent symptoms of a disease without preventing them from being infected at all. It is much more difficult to prove how effective a vaccine is at preventing transmission than it is to prove that it prevents symptoms (because you have to test frequently to pick up asymptomatic infections rather than just waiting to see if people get sick). Over the last two weeks we’ve gotten early proof that the currently available vaccines will decrease asymptomatic infections too, somewhere in the range of 70-90% once a person is at least a couple weeks after the first vaccine. So we can be confident that vaccination decreases (but doesn’t eliminate) risk of transmission to others also.
In summary, it is quite reasonable for a vaccinated person to do just about anything once they are at least a couple weeks after the first vaccination (or after the second if a person wants to be extra careful). Their risk of getting severely ill from COVID will be extremely low. A vaccinated person is also much less likely to transmit COVID-19 to others without knowing they have it, but because transmission to an unvaccinated friend or family member could still lead to serious illness in the other person (or someone they are in contact with), continuing to wear a mask around unvaccinated people remains important to protect those around us.