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COVID-19: Navigating a Post-Vaccination World

Recently, I went to my first fairly large social gathering in more than a year. I was fully vaccinated and the event was outdoors. I asked my trusted friends at this party if they were vaccinated and if the answer was yes, I gave them a hug. And it felt so good!

As of August 17, 2021, over 5.8 million people in Pennsylvania have been fully vaccinated, and that number is growing. At Independence LIVE alone, the team from vybe urgent care administered more than 22,000 COVID vaccines between March 1 and June 14, 2021. It’s wonderful to see people embracing these vaccines and the protection they provide.

COVID-19 vaccines are truly a ray of hope for an end to this pandemic. If you are fully vaccinated, there is about a 95 percent chance that you will be protected against COVID-19 infection even if you’re exposed. And the more people get vaccinated, the less opportunities the coronavirus will have to keep spreading.

If you are able to receive the vaccine, I hope you and the people you care about have been vaccinated or are planning to do so very soon — especially given the increasing prevalence of the Delta variant. This strain is twice as contagious as previous SARS-CoV-2 variants — and may be more dangerous to unvaccinated people.

If you have already recovered from COVID-19, vaccination is still important. There is strong evidence that receiving both doses of a vaccine provides stronger protection against the dangerous new coronavirus variants than natural infection does.

But life after vaccination is an entirely new and ever-changing landscape. We all have to learn how to get around in it.

What Activities Are Safe After Vaccination?

I have been following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s guidance since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But that guidance is constantly evolving as we learn more about the coronavirus and the real-world effectiveness of the vaccines.

The CDC currently says that if you are fully vaccinated, you generally don’t need to wear a mask outdoors unless you are in a crowded setting, or are in close contact with those who are not fully vaccinated. However, to maximize your protection against the Delta variant, the CDC now recommends wearing a mask indoors in public areas.

As a physician, I’m glad the CDC is taking Delta seriously and strengthening its precautions for vaccinated people. I still have two children who are too young to be vaccinated. My chances of becoming infected with the coronavirus, and passing it on to them, are very small…but they are not zero. So my policy is, if I’m around people that are vaccinated and we are outside, taking off my mask is fine. When I’m indoors and I don’t know the vaccination status of the people around me — like when I’m at the supermarket — I wear a mask.

I will eat at a restaurant if there is outdoors seating. I don’t dine indoors.

Three Reasons Why We Should Keep Masking

1. Modeling good behavior

My unvaccinated children now have tan lines on their faces from wearing masks all the time. But it’s been a long, difficult year and a half. If I want them to keep it up, I feel I have to continue modeling mask wearing around them.

And while it may be relatively safe to go around outdoors in public without a mask on once you are fully vaccinated … other people can’t tell your vaccination status by looking at you. And I don’t feel comfortable trusting everyone to be honest about their vaccination status.

I’m concerned that we have pivoted too quickly towards acting like everyone is vaccinated, and therefore stopped social distancing and wearing masks. I would rather see us continue to model mask wearing for each other, and for those around us that cannot get the vaccine due to their age or for medical reasons.

2. Protecting all those around you

If you are unvaccinated, you are putting yourself and everyone around you at risk by going around unmasked.

Remember, not everyone is able to get vaccinated. Some people who are immunosuppressed will not even develop enough antibodies from vaccination to protect them.

Yet these same people are at very high risk of serious illness from coronavirus infection. This makes it all the more important that everyone around them does get vaccinated and does wear a mask.

3. Reducing transmission of other diseases

I would add that ever since we started wearing masks to protect ourselves against COVID-19, many fewer Americans have gotten sick with influenza and other respiratory viruses. So it turns out that mask wearing is a very effective public health measure in general!

Many people in Asian countries such as Japan, Taiwan, and China have practiced mask wearing in public for decades — especially after the 2002 outbreak of sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). They do this not just to avoid spreading viruses but also to protect themselves against air pollution. If mask wearing likewise becomes a habit here in the United States, it could benefit us in a number of ways.

How Long Will Vaccination Immunity Last?

On August 18, 2021, leading infectious disease experts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced:

“The available data make very clear that protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection begins to decrease over time following the initial doses of vaccination, and in association with the dominance of the Delta variant, we are starting to see evidence of reduced protection against mild and moderate disease.”

Consequently, HHS now says that vaccinated people should receive a booster dose eight months after their first COVID-19 immunization. These booster shots are expected to start being available the week of September 20, 2021.

Additionally, the CDC now recommends that immunocompromised people, age 12 and older, should receive a third vaccine dose in order to improve their immune response against the virus.

Vaccines and Masks Aside … Let’s Support Each Other

This pandemic has been incredibly difficult for all of us…and much worse for some than for others. Its disproportionate impact on communities of color has revealed tragic systemic health inequities both in the U.S. and worldwide.

Without the advent of vaccines, I have no doubt that COVID-19 would continue ravaging every continent around the globe. So we must embrace vaccination as the lifeline that it is.

But just as importantly, we must care for one another. We must reach out to our fellow human beings, lift each other up, and help each other rebuild our lives and our mental health.

Part of that means not judging each other. I hear people getting criticized all the time because they are “still wearing masks,” or are embracing a return to normal too slowly or too quickly.

You can’t see into other people’s hearts. You don’t know what they have been through. So please practice compassion and patience.

Many people are understandably anxious about emerging from pandemic isolation. If you feel that way, this article may be helpful to you.

But if you are truly feeling emotionally overwhelmed, I urge you to seek help. Do it for your loved ones. Do it for yourself. You are worth it.

Dr. Reetika Kumar

Dr. Reetika Kumar has served as medical director and vice president of Clinical Services at Independence Health Group since 2017. Her expertise and commitment to improving the health of our members is focused on proven practices, evidenced-based medicine, and cost-effective health care delivery. Reetika is a mom of two amazing kids and stays active during the pandemic with the Peloton Female Physicians group.