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You Got Your COVID-19 Vaccine. Now What?

Close up of someone's hands holding a blank COVID-19 vaccination card.

Viorel Poparcea/Getty

Key Takeaways

  • Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 has shown to be highly effective at preventing severe illness. However, the research is not conclusive on whether the shots reduce transmission of the virus.
  • The current COVID-19 vaccines in the United States—made by Pfizer and Moderna— provide what scientists call "effective immunity." This means that the shots prevent people from getting sick, but do not stop them from passing on the virus.
  • Experts say that both vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans should continue to wear face masks and practice social distancing.

As more and more Americans receive a COVID-19 vaccine, many people are wondering when they can go back to living their normal pre-pandemic life.

Unfortunately, the answer is not straightforward. There are still many unknowns about SARS-CoV-2—which is why experts are not suggesting a one-size-fits-all guideline for people who have been vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently advises that people who have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine should continue to wear a face mask, practice social distancing, and avoid crowds or poorly ventilated spaces.

“Unfortunately having a vaccine is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Gavin Harris, MD, an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine who works in the divisions of infectious diseases and critical care, tells Verywell. “We don’t fully know if being vaccinated prevents asymptomatic transmission of the virus. So you could still technically pass it on without even realizing it. And if you have contacts who are high-risk, it could be devastating."

Effective Immunity vs. Sterilizing Immunity

It's important to understand that most vaccines do not completely protect against infection. For example, the hepatitis B vaccine provides excellent protection against future infection but does not provide sterilizing immunity—which stops disease-causing pathogens from establishing an infection.

Vaccines that accomplish sterilizing immunity, like the vaccines developed for human papillomavirus (HPV), produce a robust enough immune response to clear the virus from your body and prevent it from returning. 

A vaccine that provides sterilizing immunity means that a person can no longer get the virus. A vaccine that provides effective immunity can prevent pathogens from making a person very sick but does not keep them from getting the virus and transmitting it to others.

The currently-authorized vaccines to prevent COVID-19 in the U.S. (the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines) do not cause sterilizing immunity. They produce effective immunity, which can prevent a pathogen from causing severe disease, but cannot prevent it from entering the body and making copies of itself. That means that you may still get infected, and you may still transmit the virus.

The type of immunity provided by the vaccines is one reason why experts continue to recommend that those who are vaccinated follow COVID-19 safety precautions.

“It’s great to have the vaccine. It is safer. But there is still the potential for spreading the virus,” Bruce Hirsch, MD, an attending physician in infectious diseases at Northwell Health, tells Verywell. “We know the vaccines are effective in helping to prevent [the] severity of the disease, [but] even people with the vaccine still may get COVID-19 and still may be able to transmit it to others.”  

Can I See Other Vaccinated People?

Gigi Gronvall, PhD, a senior scholar and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Verywell that she fully plans on seeing other vaccinated family or friends—but that she will still judge each get-together on a case-by-case basis.

“The vaccines give you a much better chance at doing well with the virus and take the more severe outcomes off the table, but they can’t be a forcefield around you to prevent you from being exposed,” Gronvall says. “If I had particularly vulnerable people who I was worried about, I would continue to take some extra steps [when seeing them in person].”

Gronvall recommends taking extra steps when you're indoors, like improving ventilation indoors. She says that you can do this by opening a window, changing your air filters, or setting your fan to the “on” position if you have an HVAC air system that can be controlled by a thermostat.

Harris agrees with Gronvall to some extent, but adds that the choice is really a measure of individual risk evaluation and tolerance.

“A large gathering indoors without masks, whether vaccinated or not, is not a smart idea at this time. But two people who are fully vaccinated pose little to no risk to one another,” Harris says. “The problem arises with their contacts and the risk they could potentially spread the virus to others. Vaccination will lower all these risks, but you will not be able to fully eliminate such risks.”

What If Some People In My Home Are Not Vaccinated?

In the coming months, many homes across America will likely find themselves in a situation where one family member has been vaccinated while others wait for their priority group to be called. This is especially true for families with school-aged kids who have not been cleared to receive any COVID-19 vaccine yet.

Gavin Harris, MD

Even after vaccination, I would recommend being very cautious with expanding bubbles.

— Gavin Harris, MD

What do these scenarios of mixed vaccination status mean for those who have been vaccinated? Should they continue to limit their exposure to people outside their "COVID bubbles" until everyone in their home is vaccinated?

“I am more conservative, but believe that until an entire household is vaccinated, the same bubbles should be kept,” Harris says. “When this does occur, it usually means one member has a different level of risk (either due to an underlying condition or occupation that predisposes them to a greater risk of infection) and thus we should remain very careful. Even after vaccination, I would recommend being very cautious with expanding bubbles.” 

For households with children, Peter Chin-Hong, MD, an infectious disease physician at University of California, San Francisco Health, tells Verywell that certain factors increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission: the age of the kids (the older they are, the more likely they are to spread the virus), how much disease activity there is in the community, and how many people the parents see.

“The lowest risk is in vaccinated parents who have elementary-aged kids (under 12 years old). These parents could safely see an intimate group of vaccinated friends,” Chin-Hong says. "There would be a low chance that the vaccinated parents would not have responded to the vaccine, and low risk that young kids would be able to acquire COVID-19 from their parents in general and transmit it to each other.”

I'm a Vaccinated Healthcare Worker, Can I Still Transmit the Virus?

As they have cared for COVID-19 patients on the frontline of the pandemic, healthcare workers have lived with the increased risk of contracting the virus.

Now that many people in the healthcare industry have been vaccinated, has the risk diminished? Can people working in hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare settings safely visit with their family and friends once they have been fully vaccinated?

For some, maybe—but experts still recommend doing so in open spaces and staying socially apart.

“These high-risk people, even vaccinated, have a greater risk of becoming infected," Hirsch says. "The best strategy for right now is the combination of vaccination, masking, [and] distancing.”

Harris adds that a patient with COVID-19 could still give the virus to a vaccinated healthcare worker, and even if that person does not get sick, they could still pass it on to others. “A vaccine at this point should not drastically alter behavior until we have a continued decline and great increase in vaccinated populations," Harris says.

Why More Research Is Needed

A February study, published as a preprint in The Lancet, found early evidence that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine not only keeps people from getting sick but could also reduce asymptomatic transmission.

Based on swab tests of vaccinated trial participants after a single dose, researchers said that the vaccine cut positive test results by 67%. The researchers concluded that the results show fewer people in a community had the virus, making it less likely to spread.

Other researchers are also looking at viral load (the amount of virus an infected person has) to determine which people are more likely to pass on the infection.

Another preprint study found that the viral load is “reduced four-fold” for SARS-CoV-2 infections occurring 12 to 28 days after the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The authors concluded that the vaccine helps make people less infectious, which ultimately reduces transmission risk.

What This Means For You

While getting a COVID-19 vaccine can reduce your chances of getting seriously ill, research has not yet concluded whether the COVID-19 vaccines prevent transmission of the virus. For now, experts are still encouraging people to keep up with face mask-wearing, social distancing, and frequent, proper hand hygiene.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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