Can you visit loved ones after getting a COVID vaccine? It depends, experts say

Just because you’ve been vaccinated with one of the two authorized coronavirus vaccines doesn’t mean you’ve earned a golden ticket to brunch or wine night with loved ones, experts say.

That’s because there’s a lot scientists don’t yet know about how the vaccines work in real-life scenarios, such as mimosas with grandma. What they do know is that both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots are capable of preventing coronavirus-related death, as well as severe disease.

However, what’s largely unknown is if the vaccines prevent people from getting infected and unknowingly spreading the virus to others, even if they don’t get sick with symptoms themselves. So, while you may be in the clear, your unvaccinated loved ones may still face risks.

And now with three more contagious coronavirus variants on the loose in the U.S., advice for post-vaccination life becomes extra complicated. This is why experts say behavior after getting a shot should remain largely unchanged: wear masks in public, physically distance yourself from others and wash your hands frequently.

“I know everyone wants to get the vaccine and go right back to normal, but it’s unfortunately just not that simple,” Dr. Greg Poland, a vaccinologist and director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, told WebMD. “Vaccines plus masks allow us to start expanding our bubble among other people who have gotten vaccines and wear masks.

“As enough of that happens and time goes by, we will have more and more data and precise estimates of when we are clear to return to normal, but we just don’t know those things yet,” Poland said.

Neither of the authorized vaccines in the U.S. were 100% effective at preventing coronavirus infection during clinical trials; they both have an efficacy rate of about 95%. This means “about 1 out of 20 people who get [vaccinated] may not have protection from getting the illness,” two Johns Hopkins doctors say.

“If we don’t have enough people getting the vaccine, we can’t go hug grandma, not at this time,” Dr. June McKoy, an associate professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, told the American Association of Retired Persons. “I want to hug my patients. I’m a hugger, but remember [the vaccine] is not 100% [effective], and so you still have a risk.”

Post-vaccination life is situational

It also takes about two weeks after your second, final dose to reap the benefits of full protection against COVID-19. So, how you plan to spend your days post-vaccination depends on your situation, experts say.

“Let’s say you have two vaccinated people, and one of them is a caregiver for someone who has very high risk, who has not received the vaccine. For that person, it might make sense for them to hold off on [unprotected contact with someone who’s been vaccinated] until the person that they’re caring for has also been protected by the vaccine,” Dr. Aaron Richterman, a fellow in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, told AARP.

Meanwhile, two vaccinated people spending time together is “about as safe as you can get,” Richterman added.

“If your entire group of friends have all gotten the full vaccine regimen and at least a week has passed since their second shot, it probably is okay for you to get together with them in a closed setting, where you’re not interacting with the public,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist affiliated with Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., told Vox.

“So maybe a vacation where you all get an Airbnb and hang out — but without going bar-hopping! — would be okay,” Rasmussen said.

Although present, risks are small, so why not enjoy them?

Dr. Lucy McBride, a primary care doctor in Washington, D.C., told WebMD that focusing on the small risks blankets the promise the vaccines bring with negativity.

“We can and should allow ourselves the pleasure of looking forward to the days when we and our loved ones are vaccinated, because our risks of being together will be so very low and the benefit to our mental health high,” McBride told the outlet. “The currently available vaccines are incredibly safe and effective, and being vaccinated is our ticket to a better future.”

Dr. Anne Liu, a clinical associate professor of infectious diseases at Stanford Health Care in California, believes there should be a comfortable transition from intense pandemic behavior to normal life.

“I think it’s fair for people to gradually, not immediately, but very gradually, begin to liberalize their activities,” Liu told NBC’s TODAY. “It doesn’t mean we’re going from 0 to 60 miles per hour ... I would still advise some caution, going step by step and starting to remove some of the most stringent guardrails that your family may have had, but try to keep some still in place.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s important to keep wearing a mask that covers your mouth and nose, staying at least six feet away from others, avoiding crowds and washing your hands often — even after coronavirus vaccination.

Realistically, experts agree your behavior shouldn’t change until at least about 80% of the country’s population has gained immunity against COVID-19, either through natural infection or vaccination.

“That would be able to protect even the vulnerables who have not been vaccinated, or those in which the vaccine has not been effective,” White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said in December, according to CNBC.

So far, about 10% of the U.S. population has been vaccinated, Axios reported. It’s unclear how much of the population has acquired natural immunity to COVID-19 through infection because of inefficient testing early on in the pandemic, as well as asymptomatic infections that have and continue to go unnoticed.

More than 32.3 million Americans have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with about 9.5 million inoculated with their second dose as of Feb. 8, according to a CDC tracker.