White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci said he will not go into restaurants or movie theaters, even though he’s vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says vaccinated people should continue masking up indoors and avoiding large gatherings. News outlets have reported on “breakthrough infections” of Covid-19 among the fully vaccinated.
All of this can make it seem like getting vaccinated may not be enough to liberate people from the fear of getting sick and the precautions they’ve taken to avoid the coronavirus in the past year. So I posed a question to experts I’ve talked to throughout the pandemic about Covid-related precautions: How worried are you about your personal safety after getting vaccinated?
They were nearly unanimous in their response: They’re no longer worried much, if at all, about their personal risk of getting Covid-19. Several spoke of going into restaurants and movie theaters now that they’re vaccinated, socializing with friends and family, and having older relatives visit for extended periods.
“I’m not particularly worried about getting ill myself,” Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University, told me. “I know that if I do somehow end up infected, my chances of developing serious symptoms are low.”
Instead, experts said they mostly remain cautious to protect others who aren’t yet vaccinated. The vaccines are extremely effective — dramatically cutting the risk of any symptoms, and driving the risk of hospitalization and death to nearly zero. There’s some evidence that these vaccines also reduce the risk of transmission, but we’re still learning how much they prevent someone who is vaccinated from infecting another person. When experts are still taking precautions, it’s this concern for others that primarily drives them.
But, over time, they see even those concerns for others becoming less necessary, too.
“It’s about protecting others. Vaccination makes me essentially safe,” William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, told me. “There’s accumulating evidence, too, that breakthrough cases are less likely to transmit (they have lower viral loads), so by being vaccinated I’m already helping protect others. But I’m also going to continue with behaviors consistent with lower contact rates in the community overall. As more and more are protected through vaccination, I’ll feel less and less of a need for that.”
As vaccination rates climb and daily new cases and deaths drop, experts said that people should feel more comfortable easing up on precautions, shifting the world back to the pre-pandemic days. That might happen sooner than you think — Israel’s experience suggests that cases could start to sustainably plummet once about 60 percent of the population is vaccinated, a point that could be just a month or two away in the US. And with 46 percent of Americans getting one dose so far, cases in the US have already started to decline.
As more of the population gets the vaccine, it’s prudent to keep masking and avoiding large gatherings, and for people who’ve been vaccinated to share their stories and encourage their friends and family to get vaccinated, too. But that’s not because those who are vaccinated are in any trouble. Even with the spread of the variants, the consensus among experts is that vaccinated people shouldn’t worry much about their own risk of Covid-19.