CDC's Do's and Don'ts For Fully Vaccinated People : Short Wave The CDC released new guidance Monday, allowing people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to resume some pre-pandemic activities, including gathering indoors with other vaccinated people without wearing masks. Health correspondent Allison Aubrey walks us through the new recommendations and what precautions fully vaccinated people still need to take.

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CDC's Do's and Don'ts For Fully Vaccinated People

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


SOFIA: ...From NPR.

Maddie Sofia here with NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey. Great to be here, Maddie.

SOFIA: So you're here because there was a press briefing by the White House COVID-19 response team on Monday with some long-awaited guidance.


ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Good morning, and thank you. I'm glad to be back with you today. Let's get started.

AUBREY: So that is CDC director Rochelle Walensky. And she said after weeks of steady decline in new coronavirus cases, there's been a leveling off of the decline. The country's averaging about 60,000 new cases a day.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, it's not great. Caseload-wise, we are pretty much where we were right before the winter surge.


WALENSKY: And the most recent seven-day average of deaths is slightly lower than 2,000 deaths per day.

AUBREY: So that's pretty troubling. But Walensky also said she was hopeful. And she pointed to the approximately 31 million people - that's about 12% of U.S. adults - who are fully vaccinated.


WALENSKY: And as more Americans are vaccinated, a growing body of evidence now tells us that there are some activities that fully vaccinated people can resume at low risk to themselves.

AUBREY: And then, Maddie, she went on to detail new CDC guidelines about what activities are considered safe for fully vaccinated people because everyone wants to get back to something that looks kind of like normal or normal-ish.

SOFIA: I mean, this is the news people have been waiting for, right? I mean, vaccinated people can have a little more freedom to socialize. But before we get ahead of ourselves, Allison, let's make sure everyone knows what we mean when we say fully vaccinated.

AUBREY: Sure. So a person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after getting the second dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, because those require two shots, or two weeks after the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

SOFIA: Yeah, because for that one, you only need that single dose to be fully vaccinated.

AUBREY: That's right. Now, these new guidelines are not the final word. They're sort of a baby step towards a return to normal. Dr. Walensky made this clear during the briefing.


WALENSKY: The science of COVID-19's complex, and our understanding of the virus continues to rapidly evolve. The recommendations issued today are just a first step.

AUBREY: So as more people get vaccinated, the understanding will grow about what activities are safe to do, and this guidance will be updated.


SOFIA: So today on the show, we talk about the CDC's first set of public health recommendations for fully vaccinated people and why it's still important for all of us to remain vigilant. This is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


SOFIA: OK, Allison, I am very glad to have you here today. And we are going to go into the caveats and the guidance, and we are going to dissect this. But, you know, I have to say this does feel like kind of a moment to celebrate that we are getting, you know, a little bit of freedom back. The CDC guidance is relaxing about what vaccinated people can do. So I don't know. I just want to start off with being like, this is pretty awesome. You know what I mean?

AUBREY: Yeah. I agree there's a sense of optimism. We all feel it. We look at these vaccination numbers ticking up and think, you know, the new normal's right around the corner. But I just have to say, you know...

SOFIA: Yeah.

AUBREY: ...Hang on, folks. Like, there are still 60,000 cases a day. Most adults haven't been vaccinated yet. So there's a lot of vulnerable people out there, and the pandemic is not yet in the rearview mirror.

SOFIA: Absolutely, absolutely. OK, so let's get into it. What does the new guidance say that fully vaccinated people can do?

AUBREY: The agency says that fully vaccinated people can gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people without wearing masks and without social distancing. They can also gather unmasked with people from another household who are not vaccinated if everybody there is at low risk of serious illness. So it's really a green light for scenarios of, like, grandparents who want to gather with their children or their grandchildren.

SOFIA: Right. I mean, this guidance gives the example fully vaccinated grandparents can visit indoors with their unvaccinated, healthy family members, and that's without wearing masks or physical distancing, provided, of course, that none of the unvaccinated family members are at high risk of severe COVID-19. So let's break that down for a second, Allison.


SOFIA: Who is considered high-risk for severe COVID, and who's considered low-risk?

AUBREY: People at high risk include older adults. Remember; the vast majority of deaths are in people 75 and older. Another high-risk group - pregnant individuals and people with certain medical conditions. Those at lower risk include kids and healthy adults, people who've had minimal exposure to other people. Bottom line, risk goes up with age.

SOFIA: And the guidance from this week also says that the visiting should be confined to one household, right?

AUBREY: Yeah, right. They're very specific about this. And they give some scenarios. The dividing line in your mind should sort of be private spaces where you control who's around, your home and public spaces. So at home, if you are fully vaccinated and your friend or a family member, fully vaccinated - green light here to gather. Do it unmasked with no social distancing required. Hallelujah.

Another scenario - my parents are vaccinated now. They can come to my house even though we are not fully vaccinated and my 10-year-old daughter is too young to be vaccinated. We are considered low-risk. So vaccinated people can go visit unvaccinated people as long as everyone there is considered low-risk.

SOFIA: OK, so that's all the good stuff. Let's talk about areas to be kind of cautious around.

AUBREY: So sure. This is where there are some caution flags. Vaccinated people visiting unvaccinated people from multiple households at the same time - this is where the risk starts to sort of add up or accumulate. So in this kind of situation, everyone should wear a mask and visit outdoors if possible - or if you are indoors, make sure it's a well-ventilated space - and maintain physical distance. When it comes to medium or large gatherings - say, a baseball game, a wedding - it's recommended that everyone, including fully vaccinated people, continue to avoid them.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, let's talk about why we still need some of these precautions.

AUBREY: Sure. I mean, officials say there's a growing body of evidence to show that people who are fully vaccinated are less likely to become infected and also potentially less likely to spread the virus to others. They use that word potential because the risk appears to be quite low...

SOFIA: Right.

AUBREY: ...But this is just not completely nailed down yet. So as the science evolves, there will likely be more updated guidance.

SOFIA: And the guidance even talked about how, in rare cases, vaccinated people could get sick, could have symptoms.

AUBREY: Yeah. I mean, the risk is low, but it's not zero. I mean, the clinical trials showed the vaccines are very, very effective. They're not 100% effective. And so the CDC says if a fully vaccinated person has symptoms, they should isolate and talk to a doctor and possibly get a test.

But they also say if a fully vaccinated person has a known exposure - say they go to work and they later find out that a close contact was infected - they do not need to quarantine or get tested because their infection risk is low, though they should sort of monitor themselves for symptoms.

SOFIA: Right. So if a person who's vaccinated is feeling sick, they should isolate and talk to a doctor. But if they get exposed to somebody who's sick, that doesn't necessarily mean they need to, you know, go into quarantine. They just need to kind of monitor themselves.

AUBREY: That's right.

SOFIA: OK. And the guidance then specifically addressed travel. I know a lot of people, including myself, are very eager to, you know, like, get out there in the world again.

AUBREY: You know, and this comes as a disappointment for many. I get it. But even for fully vaccinated people, the CDC continues to recommend that people delay travel. CDC director Walensky says every time there's been a surge in travel during the pandemic, cases have gone up.


WALENSKY: We would like to give the opportunity for vaccinated grandparents to visit their children and grandchildren who are healthy and who are local, but our travel guidance currently has been unchanged.

AUBREY: So if you live in the same town and can get to see your parents easily, she's sort of saying, makes sense. If it requires a lot of travel, maybe rethink it. She says the CDC is still waiting on more data before they change the travel guidance.

SOFIA: Yeah, absolutely. OK, so let's talk about what the guidance says about the variants. These are new strains of the coronavirus that act differently than the one that's been circulating more widely.

AUBREY: You know, the guidance outlines what researchers are still learning. And bottom line, scientists are still learning how variants influence vaccine efficacy. Early data show the vaccines work against some, maybe less effective against others. All the vaccine makers are looking at how they would retool the vaccines to be effective against multiple emerging strains.

At the moment, the one that seems to be most prevalent here in the United States is the strain originally identified in the U.K. Here is former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb last Sunday on CBS.


SCOTT GOTTLIEB: That's going to probably cause infections to tick back up. I don't think we're going to see another surge of infection this spring, but we might see a plateauing before we see continued declines again.

AUBREY: So, you know, it's just another reminder that the virus is still out there, that masks are our best protection. You know, there's light at the end of the tunnel, but as Dr. Fauci has said, we need to hang on a while longer and remain vigilant.


SOFIA: OK, Allison Aubrey, thank you so much for coming on the show. We will be keeping an eye on this guidance as it changes.

AUBREY: Great to be here. Thanks, Maddie.


SOFIA: This show was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Viet Le and Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi. The audio engineer for this episode was Patrick Murray. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


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