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What daily life could look like after the COVID-19 vaccine

Millions of COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed across the country as people begin to imagine how daily life will change once they get the shot. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Millions of COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed across the country as people begin to imagine how daily life will change once they get the shot. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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As millions of COVID-19 vaccines go out across the country, people are starting to imagine what life will look like once they get the shot.

Families who have been apart for nearly a year are envisioning get-togethers. Friends are looking to rebook canceled vacations. Weddings, anniversaries, bar mitzvahs! There is even talk of live entertainment events, concerts and festivals returning "at scale" by the summer.

However, experts and public health officials are warning, not so fast. Even after getting a vaccine, people will still have to be cautious.


So far, the rollout of the vaccine has been slow. Close to 11 million Americans have gotten a COVID-19 shot and almost 30 million doses of the vaccine have been distributed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For those who have been vaccinated, it's safe to breathe a sigh of relief. The vaccines were proven to be more than 90% effective in preventing severe illness. But it's important to remember that it may still be possible to spread the virus to others.

"The vaccine is made to prompt enough or an immune response in your body that you don't get symptomatic," said Keri Althoff, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "But the question is, if someone who is vaccinated does get infected, is that person able to transmit?"

Data to answer that question is being gathered continually. It's Althoff's hope that Moderna and Pfizer could have answers to that question when they apply for regular authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

That means it's not time to throw away face masks. Public safety measures will be critical for the foreseeable future. Until it's clear whether vaccinated people can transmit the virus and until enough people get vaccinated to reach herd immunity, which health officials estimate to be 75-80% of the population.


Life in the early months of vaccination will look a lot like life today, according to experts. Until the vaccine is more widely available, its effects will be limited and there could continue to be substantial numbers of new virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths, which hit record highs this week.

Once a person is vaccinated and protected personally against serious illness, they may be tempted to return to pre-pandemic activities. With so much of the population still unvaccinated and the possibility of transmitting the virus to others, it's recommended to take things slow.

"Even if a person gets vaccinated, it's still going be very important to continue to wear a mask around others until we have a clearer picture of the impact of the vaccine on transmission," said Dr. Pia MacDonald, an infectious disease epidemiologist at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute.

It's also possible for a person who gets vaccinated to still contract the virus. Even if they experience only mild symptoms, they can potentially become "long-haulers." MacDonald urged that the long-term effects of the virus are still unknown. Scientists continue to look at potential respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological effects that may impact survivors for years after recovering.

"For people who are risk-averse, we're going to want to be careful for quite a long time," she said.

At the same time, daily life could feel different for those who get the shot, like frontline health care workers, first responders and older Americans who can start to feel a little more comfortable after living the past ten months at high risk of infection, serious illness or death.


Groups of vaccinated people may also start to feel more comfortable gathering together for family reunions, trips, concerts or other get-togethers.

The risk of getting seriously ill is minimal, even when congregating indoors. It's not zero. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have a 5-10% risk of being ineffective. Depending on the vaccine, it can take four to five weeks to be effective or one week after receiving the second dose.

Still, it is relatively safe to get together for a family reunion when everyone has been vaccinated, according to Dr. MacDonald. Outside that group, however, there is a risk of transmitting it.

"You can feel safe that you're not going to get severely ill and die from that gathering. But you don't know what impact you would have on the broader community," MacDonald said.

There's also discussion of vaccine passports to ensure everyone on an airplane or everyone attending a large event is vaccinated. Ticketmaster announced last year that it was exploring the possibility of checking the status of concert and eventgoers.

The travel industry has already implemented testing requirements to board certain flights and vaccine cards could be next. Starting this week, all international travelers flying to the United States will need proof of a negative coronavirus test.


Since the start of the pandemic, public health officials have offered estimates about when life might go back to "normal." In a series of recent interviews, top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested that time might come in fall 2021, if enough people get vaccinated to reach herd immunity.

There's hope that more elements of normal life will return in the coming months: children will go back to school, offices and businesses will reopen and people will be able to gather more at public and private events.

"We need to not think about how things were two years ago we need to create a whole new normal that is going to work for us while we have the virus circulating," urged Dr. MacDonald.

To reach that "new normal" there will need to be a dramatic reduction in the rate of virus transmissions, severe disease and deaths. The rate of vaccinations will have to increase. This week, officials loosened restrictions on which groups could get the vaccine after close to two-thirds of the shots delivered to states remained unused.

At the current rate, health officials estimate it will take until the spring to vaccinate everyone in high-risk groups who wants to be vaccinated. After that, the shots will be more widely available to the public with as many as one or two additional vaccine options available.

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"We will walk slowly back to a place where the virus doesn't keep us so much in our homes and 6 feet or more away from people, but I do think we have to remember it is a process," said Dr. Althoff.

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