What is safe after getting COVID-19 vaccines?

New guidance from CDC experts gives ‘fully vaccinated’ people greater freedoms, but restrictions on travel are still wise
March 15, 2021
What's safe after vaccine? Here, a grandmother wearing a mask greets her grandson.
People who have received their vaccines can enjoy new freedoms. But, what exactly is safe after you get your vaccine? Photo: Getty Images.

Now that you have your COVID-19 vaccine, what is safe? Can you gather indoors with friends and family?

Is it safe to travel, dine in restaurants, meet friends for coffee, brunch or drinks?

For the millions of Americans who are lucky enough to have had their vaccines, experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced new guidance on March 8, 2021 that greatly enhances the freedoms that people who have their COVID-19 vaccines can enjoy.

But, the virus that causes COVID-19 remains dangerous for those who are not protected. And, the new variants can slip past our defenses if we are not careful.

So, we’ve reviewed the new CDC guidance and consulted with Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth and one of the top infectious disease experts in Colorado.

She likes the idea that people who are fully vaccinated can embrace more freedoms, but Barron still is advising caution.

“We’re in the last few miles of the marathon. We’re not at the finish line yet. We still have a couple of miles to go. We could collapse or fall or get hurt. We don’t want that,” said Barron who is also a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

So, here’s what you can do and how to stay safe after getting your COVID-19 vaccine.

What’s the new guidance from the CDC about gathering after getting a vaccine?

CDC experts decided that “small gatherings among fully vaccinated people represent minimal risk.” They also said that vaccinated people, like grandparents, would be safe to see family members again in person if any non-vaccinated people are not at high risk if they get COVID-19.

Here’s Barron’s take on the new guidance.

“Getting vaccines is fabulous,” she said.

She thinks CDC officials are trying to encourage people who are on the fence about getting vaccines to move forward.

“Once you have your vaccine, you can hang out with your family. You are unlikely to infect each other,” Barron said.

Still, because Barron has seen how dangerous and deadly the virus can be, and because variants are spreading in Colorado and throughout the U.S., Barron encourages people to remain vigilant.

“This is not a free-for-all,” Barron said. “You still need to consider risks. Maybe you and your husband are vaccinated, but your 20-year-old is not. Maybe grandma is coming to visit. You need to think about whether the unvaccinated person (the 20-year-old) is low risk.”

When am I considered “fully vaccinated” against COVID-19?

Two weeks after receiving your vaccine or your second dose, you are considered “fully vaccinated.” People who receive the Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech vaccines need two doses. People who receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine only need a single dose.

If I’m fully-vaccinated what activities are safe now?

Vaccinated people still need to use good judgment and consider specific situations, Barron said. Do you know for sure that others with whom you are hanging out are fully vaccinated? Do you trust them to be honest with you? Are they at high risk if they get sick? Are you gathering indoors — where risks of exposure are higher — or are you meeting friends and family outside?

“The science would suggest that if you’re fully vaccinated and you’re beyond that 14-day window after your vaccine, you should be protected. But, that doesn’t mean that you can’t transmit the virus to others,’’ Barron said.

Headshot of Dr. Michelle Barron. She describes what's safe after getting the vaccine.
Dr. Michelle Barron. She helps explain what’s safe after getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

Also, there have been cases of fully vaccinated people getting COVID-19.

So, Barron advises people to continue being cautious about exposing others post-vaccination.

She recommends small gatherings (outdoors, if possible) with family and friends. She does not advise having any large gatherings or attending big public events.

Indoor meals at restaurants are more risky, as is travel. (Please see more information below.)

CDC experts say it is safe for fully-vaccinated people to:

  • Gather with other vaccinated people.
  • Visit with unvaccinated people from a single household if the unvaccinated people are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease.
  • Refrain from quarantine and testing if they don’t have any symptoms of COVID-19.

Barron said that CDC experts are referring primarily to children when they mention “unvaccinated people.” That’s because most children have fared relatively well if they have gotten COVID-19. Some children and other family members are immunosuppressed. And, some children have gotten very sick with the viruses. So, individuals and families should think carefully before making decisions about congregating with others.

“Vaccinated people are unlikely to infect others, but the risk is not zero,” Barron said.

Is it safe for people to travel if they’ve gotten the vaccine?

CDC experts have asked people to continue delaying non-essential travel. Click here to see travel recommendations and requirements.

Health experts continue to urge caution related to travel because COVID-19 infection rates have climbed after holidays when large numbers of people have traveled far from their homes and communities.

But, again, judgment comes into play, Barron says.

“What mode of travel am I using? If I fly, I have to wear a mask the whole time. That’s a federal requirement. And, what are the rates (of virus spread) in the community where I’m going?”

Barron’s father-in-law is 88 and received his vaccine. She and her husband both received their vaccines through work.

So, after analyzing all the risks, they decided to take a recent weekend trip to San Diego to see him.

They wore their masks the entire time they were in the airport and on the plane, of course. Barron also brings disinfecting wipes and carefully wipes down the seats, seat belts, armrests and tray tables. If she touches surfaces, she avoids touching her face until she can thoroughly wash or sanitize her hands.

Barron doesn’t feel sheepish in the least about being careful and advises all of us to do the same. If anyone looks askance at her, she explains that she’s an infectious disease expert.

“I do my lovely routines and wipe everything down. I’m OK with that,” she said.

Once in California, Barron, her husband and her father-in-law enjoyed a nice visit. They spent most of their time outdoors and stayed elsewhere to protect him.

“It felt like a slice of normalcy,” she said. “It’s kind of exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time.

“The CDC is trying to inch along,” Barron said.

Is it safe for people to have dinner with friends if they’re vaccinated?

“If everyone is vaccinated and beyond the two-week window, I think it’s probably fine to gather,” Barron said.

“I would still meet people outside if possible,” Barron said. “The CDC did not give a blanket OK.”

Barron said it’s important to have frank discussions.

“Are you comfortable asking your neighbors and friends if they’ve had their COVID-19 vaccines?” Barron said.

And, do you trust the answers you’ll get?

“You’re asking people personal information. If someone says, ‘I didn’t get a vaccine,’ is that an answer you want to hear?” Barron said.

“It’s all about risk. Even with these new recommendations, it’s all about how much risk you are willing to tolerate.”

Is it safe for vaccinated people to visit with unvaccinated members of a household, including people at greater risk for severe COVID-19?

No. If unvaccinated people are at increased risk of severe COVID-19, everyone should take precautions including wearing a well-fitted mask, staying at least 6 feet away from others, and visiting outdoors or in a well-ventilated space, according to CDC guidance.

“For example, if a fully vaccinated individual visits with an unvaccinated friend who is 70-years old and therefore at risk of severe disease, the visit should take place outdoors, (with people) wearing well-fitted masks, and maintaining physical distance (at least 6 feet),” CDC experts said.

Is it safe for vaccinated people to visit with unvaccinated people from multiple households at the same time? Are parties safe now?

No. The risks of spreading the virus are higher when people from multiple households get together. It’s wise for everyone to continue to be cautious: wear masks, stay at least six feet apart (social distancing) and visit with each other outdoors or in well-ventilated places, CDC experts said.

Is it safe to dine indoors at restaurants if I’ve gotten vaccinated?

Barron said everyone should think carefully before dining indoors, including people who are fully vaccinated. Barron isn’t doing so herself yet.

“I still have some anxiety about gathering in restaurants or inside homes. If you’re not sure if there’s enough air exchange to keep you safe, I’d be a little nervous,” Barron said. “I’m still wearing my mask 98% of the time.

“If I don’t know that people are vaccinated, I’m still staying six feet apart.”

Here’s what she thinks about with respect to indoor dining.

“It would depend on the restaurant. It would depend on how well spaced the tables. I would want to see that the servers are all wearing their masks,” Barron said.

In public settings, you have no way of knowing how many other people are vaccinated.

And, since asymptomatic spread has been a major factor with the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, it’s possible for people to spread the virus without having any symptoms.

Do I still need to wear masks if I’ve gotten the vaccine?

Yes. In public, it’s wise to keep taking precautions like wearing well-fitted masks and staying at least six feet apart from strangers. It is possible for people who have received vaccines to get COVID-19 and to transmit it to other people. Click here to learn why it makes sense to wear a mask after getting your vaccine.

How do variants of COVID-19 affect people who have been vaccinated?

The variants are the biggest concern now, Barron said. Experts believe that all the approved vaccines in the U.S. are relatively good at reducing COVID-19 infections or the severity of illnesses. But, the vaccines can be less effective against the virus variants. And some of the variants spread more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Barron is particularly concerned about the South African variant, which is also known as B.1.351.

Cases of the variant surfaced recently in a Colorado correctional facility in Buena Vista and it’s likely that it’s spreading in the community, Barron said.

If people I know still aren’t sure about getting COVID-19 vaccines, what should I tell them? Why should they get vaccinated?

“COVID-19 vaccines give you a layer of protection that you don’t currently have. Every day, every week that you wait to get your vaccine, there’s a chance you could get sick and die. We want everyone to survive and we don’t want you to have to come to the hospital,” Barron said.

We all want to be able to gather with friends and family in the near future and getting a COVID-19 vaccine will help make that a reality, Barron said.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.

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