Since the first COVID vaccines were authorized and started going into people’s arms, there’s been a maddening debate about what being vaccinated against the coronavirus would allow people to do. Thanks to confusing coverage — and equally confusing public-health guidance — about vaccine efficacy, herd-immunity thresholds, and the risk of COVID variants, people could be forgiven for assuming that getting vaccinated was not the life-changing opportunity it may have seemed it would be six months ago. Except it is.
The vaccines work — even better than anybody dared to hope. The pace of vaccinations in the U.S. continues to rise. And in light of the new guidelines the CDC released Monday, it should now be abundantly clear to everyone that vaccination doesn’t just provide protection against the coronavirus but marks the beginning of the end to the one of the most personally damaging effects of the pandemic: isolation.
The CDC now confirms that, yes, fully vaccinated people can gather indoors, mask free, with other fully vaccinated people — and with unvaccinated people from another household, provided none of those people is at high risk of severe illness from COVID. That means that vaccinated seniors can safely see their kids and grandkids again, with all the hugs, kisses, and cheek-pinching they want. And it’s not just about grandparents. Vaccinated people and other people can be together again, without Zoom backgrounds, and sit on the same sofa and shut off the risk calculators in their brain while they do. Plenty of vaccinated people have already been doing this, but now it’s CDC-approved. Now it’s expected, normal behavior.
The guidelines are still conservative: The fully vaccinated should continue to take the standard precautions, like wearing face masks in public places, but that will likely remain a requirement in most states for the foreseeable future anyway. The CDC also says fully vaccinated people shouldn’t go maskless among unvaccinated people from multiple households and should still avoid medium-size gatherings or larger ones. The CDC’s recommendations will invite new risk-benefit debates about those and other situations, but the guidance thankfully mirrors common sense and, most important, reinforces the fact that COVID vaccines definitely work and definitely should change your life.
“Vaccines provide a true reduction of risk, not a false sense of security,” epidemiologist Julia Marcus recently argued in The Atlantic in a call for more realistic public-health guidance about post-vaccine behavior. “And trying to eliminate even the lowest-risk changes in behavior both underestimates people’s need to be close to one another and discourages the very thing that will get everyone out of this mess: vaccine uptake.”
Telling people it’s okay and safe to behave differently and embrace more freedoms — and people — after they get vaccinated, and trusting them to do so responsibly, reinforces the idea that getting vaccinated equals meaningful change for the quality of someone’s personal life.
Vaccination isn’t just about macro outcomes or about flattening curves, reducing risk, saving lives, and bringing back the economy; it’s an opportunity to get our collective family and social lives back, an opportunity to counteract the anxiety so many have learned to feel about being less than six feet away from other people. Social distance has been necessary, and still will be in public places for a while to come, but it will never be natural. The vaccinated and their friends and family can and should start closing the distance — between each other, and between the pandemic and whatever the new normal turns out to be after.
So if you know one of the 30 million Americans who has been fully vaccinated, go give them a hug, right now. (Or make a plan to as soon as you can.) If you’re vaccinated yourself, find somebody to hug, and put that immunological armor and freedom to good, in-person use. The pandemic isn’t over. Risks remain and will continue to. But as the vaccines keep going into arms, for more and more people — especially those living by themselves or remaining isolated from their friends and family — whatever comes next, they literally won’t be alone. Not anymore.