Congratulations, You’re Vaccinated! Now What?

Even those who are vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 should still be careful. Here’s why.

Congratulations, You’re Vaccinated! Now What?

Updated on March 31, 2021 at 5:00pm EST.

More than 195 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been distributed across the United States as of March 31. Some 97 million people have gotten their first shot while more than 54 million people received two doses and are now fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The rollout follows unprecedented efforts to develop a safe and effective vaccine in record time.

Now, as spring approaches and millions more Americans anxiously await their turn to roll up their sleeves, many who’ve already been vaccinated are left wondering how and when they can begin to travel and socialize safely again.

In some cases, the overwhelming desire for social contact has surpassed safety concerns, particularly among those who’ve already been infected or have been self-isolating and believe that they are at low risk for either getting COVID or spreading the coronavirus to others.

As of March 31, the CDC reports that more than 29 million people in the United States have recovered from the disease. In some cases, people are using their “vaccinated” or “recently recovered” status as a ticket to go out or socialize with friends without taking precautions, such as wearing masks and social distancing.

Their rationale: Having received one or more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine or having just recovered from the disease, they must certainly have some antibodies, which would ensure that they are not only protected but also unable to infect anyone.

Is this really the case? Not exactly.

While these seemingly gray areas could tempt you to loosen the reins and open up your social pod or bubble, the answers to these and similar questions is unchanged:

  1. Anyone who isn’t fully vaccinated—it's been at least two weeks since they received the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine—should still consider themselves at risk for infection.
  2. People who aren't fully vaccinated are still a potential risk to others, including those who’ve recovered from COVID-19 in the past.
  3. Until the majority of the population is immune, even those who are fully vaccinated must continue to follow all precautions when out in public to prevent spreading the coronavirus to anyone else.

Here’s why.

Even vaccinated people must follow precautions
After more than a year of being physically distant and wearing masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says those who are fully vaccinated can gather indoors in small, private group settings with other fully vaccinated people without masks.

By definition, people are fully vaccinated if:

  • It’s been at least two weeks since they got their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

OR

  • It’s been at least two weeks since they got the Johnson & Johnson shot.

Fully vaccinated people can also visit with unvaccinated people from one other household without masks or physical distancing—if all of the unvaccinated people in that household are at low risk for severe COVID-19.

But being vaccinated doesn’t mean you can finally throw caution to the wind. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

  • If anyone in your home is at high risk for severe COVID-19, masks, physical distancing, proper ventilation, hand hygiene and all other coronavirus precautions are still necessary.
     
  • Masks, physical distancing, moving outdoors, avoiding poorly ventilated spaces and other precautions are still needed when fully vaccinated people are visiting unvaccinated people from more than one household.
     
  • All precautions are still essential for everyone in public settings—even those who are fully vaccinated or at low risk for severe COVID-19.

Vaccines can help prevent someone who has been exposed to the coronavirus from getting sick or developing symptoms of COVID-19. But it’s still unclear if the vaccines block transmission or prevent someone from carrying the virus and silently spreading it to others. Research on the vaccines and their ability to block transmission is ongoing.

Additionally, the rollout of the vaccines will take time. It will be many months before everyone who wants to be vaccinated receives their shots.

Moreover, the Pfizer vaccine was shown to be 95 percent effective in clinical trials. The Moderna vaccine was found to be 94.1 percent effective. And the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which may soon be authorized for use in the United States, was also shown to be 66 percent effective at preventing moderate to severe disease. Although all of these vaccines are safe and highly effective, a small percentage of people may not be protected by them.

Meanwhile, coronavirus variants have emerged that may reduce the efficacy of existing vaccines. Investigations on all worrisome variants are ongoing and scientists are already working to update existing vaccines to cover these mutations. Keep in mind, even a partially effective vaccine can save lives and will help control the pandemic. Although efficacy may vary, this protection is better than none. And as more people are vaccinated, the coronavirus will have fewer opportunities to mutate.

Recovery from COVID isn’t a guarantee
You are likely immune for at least some length of time after recovering from COVID-19, but it’s unclear how long you’ll be protected.

Researchers are still investigating how long antibodies last. People who’ve had COVID-19 may continue to produce protective antibodies against certain parts of the virus for at least three to four months. Some evidence suggests antibodies may last eight months.

But even if it’s been fewer than three months since you’ve recovered, socializing without a mask is still not okay.

People who’ve had COVID-19 may have low levels of the coronavirus in their bodies for up to three months, the CDC reports. It’s not yet known if those who’ve recovered—but still have detectable levels of viral RNA—are infectious and pose a risk to others.

It’s also possible to get COVID more than once. Reinfection in people who test negative after a recent infection is rare. But the risk is not zero.

Complicating matters, reinfections may be mild. Some people may not develop any symptoms at all and not realize that they are positive for COVID-19. Scientists are also still working to understand how the newly identified strains of the coronavirus may affect the rate of reinfections.

Diagnostic testing is only good for that day
Taking a COVID test on Wednesday and getting a negative result on Friday doesn’t mean that you can take off your mask and safely attend an indoor party with friends that night.

If you receive a negative result, it’s likely that you were not infected at the time you were tested.

But it’s possible for you to be exposed to the virus and become infected in the hours or days after you’re tested. That’s because molecular diagnostic tests, such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, take this long to process.

Another type of diagnostic test, called antigen tests, can provide results within minutes. But these tests, which are designed to detect fragments of proteins found on or inside the virus, tend to miss more cases than PCR tests, which look for evidence of genetic material from the virus.

As a result, a negative antigen test result may not be accurate and should be confirmed with a PCR test.

It’s also possible to be infected but receive a negative result if you take the test very early on—before the coronavirus is detectable. People can transmit the virus even before they develop symptoms. Some people with COVID-19 never develop symptoms but they can still spread the disease.

So, you still need to be cautious and take steps to protect yourself and others after getting a negative COVID test result.

Prevention guidelines haven’t changed
The CDC recently updated its quarantine guidelines, stating that people who have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 3 months and confirmed their recovery with a follow-up negative test result do not have to quarantine. These people also do not need to get re-tested, unless they develop new symptoms.

Those who are fully vaccinated can also skip quarantine and coronavirus testing if they are exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19 as long as they do not have symptoms and they don’t live in a group home or detention or correctional facility. (Fully vaccinated people who don’t quarantine, however, should still monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 for 14 days following exposure, and isolate themselves if they do develop signs of infection.)

But the call for wearing masks and other preventative measures in public remains unchanged. Everyone, with rare medically necessary exceptions, should continue to cover their mouth and nose when out in pubic or around other people from multiple households or unvaccinated people who are at higher risk for severe COVID-19. This applies to you—even if you’ve recently recovered or been vaccinated.

Bottom line: We still do not know what kind of immunity a person has after recovering from COVID-19 or how long it will last. And even if recovered people are immune (temporarily), it’s unclear if they could still spread the infection.

Until enough of the population is vaccinated and immune to the coronavirus, preventative measures—masks, social distancing, avoiding crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation and diligent hand hygiene—will still be necessary.

Medically reviewed in January 2021.

Sources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “CDC COVID Data Tracker.” Jan 21, 2021.
Kaiser Family Foundation. “States Try To Pick Up Pace Of Sluggish Vaccine Rollout As Frustrations Mount.” Jan 5, 2021.
Jon Cohen. “Dosing debates, transparency issues roil vaccine rollouts.” Science. Jan 2021: 109-110.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “FDA Statement on Following the Authorized Dosing Schedules for COVID-19 Vaccines.” Jan 4, 2021.
U.S. National Institutes of Health. “Two Studies Show COVID-19 Antibodies Persist for Months.” Oct 20, 2020.
University of Minnesota: Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. “Two studies find that COVID-19 antibodies last 8 months.” Dec 23, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When You Can be Around Others After You Had or Likely Had COVID-19.” Dec 1, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Clinical Questions about COVID-19: Questions and Answers.” Jan 7, 2021.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Coronavirus Disease 2019 Testing Basics.” Nov 6, 2020.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes First Antigen Test to Help in the Rapid Detection of the Virus that Causes COVID-19 in Patients.” May 9, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19 Testing Overview.” Dec 7, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “How to Protect Yourself & Others.” Dec 31, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Test for Current Infection.” Oct 21, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When to Quarantine.” Dec 10, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Scientific Brief: Community Use of Cloth Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2.” Nov 20, 2020.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. “COVID-19 Vaccine: What You Need to Know.” Dec 23, 2020.
Pfizer. “Pfizer and BioNTech Conclude Phase 3 Study of COVID-19 Vaccine Candidates, Meeting All Primary Efficacy Endpoints.” Nov 18, 2020.
Moderna. “Moderna Announces Primary Efficacy Analysis in Phase 3 COVE Study for Its COVID-19 Vaccine Candidate and Filing Today with U.S. FDA for Emergency Use Authorization.” Nov 30, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What to Expect after Getting a COVID-19 Vaccine. Jan 11, 2021.

More On

Young Adults Are Struggling With Mental Health During the Pandemic

article

Young Adults Are Struggling With Mental Health During the Pandemic
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, Americans’ mental health took a hit. Rates of depression and anxiety increased, and with them, substa...
Pfizer’s Antiviral Pill Cuts Risk of Severe COVID By 89 Percent

article

Pfizer’s Antiviral Pill Cuts Risk of Severe COVID By 89 Percent
Pfizer says that its COVID pill cuts the risk for hospitalization or death from the disease by 89 percent. The drug, known as Paxlovid, was found to b...
People with Mood Disorders at High Risk for COVID-19, CDC Says

article

People with Mood Disorders at High Risk for COVID-19, CDC Says
Mood disorders are now listed alongside cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia and other chronic health issues as conditions that place people at h...
Biden Announces Vaccine Mandates That Will Affect 100 Million U.S. Workers

article

Biden Announces Vaccine Mandates That Will Affect 100 Million U.S. Workers
President Biden announced plans to sign an executive order, requiring all 2.1 million federal employees and government contractors to get vaccinated a...
Kindness Works. Here’s How to Help Yourself by Helping Others

article

Kindness Works. Here’s How to Help Yourself by Helping Others
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought profound loss, despair, and distress to millions of people in the United States, the past two years have al...