Story at a glance

  • More than 20 percent of people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated.
  • The vaccines are meant to protect against severe illness and hospitalization.
  • Vaccinated people can still get infected and potentially pass the virus to others.

With about a third of people in the U.S. with one dose and more than 20 percent fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, people are wondering why they still need to be cautious in their daily activities. This has to do with how the vaccine works, as well as being careful during this stage as experts gather more data on how immunization is affecting case loads.

The goal and purpose for vaccination is to prevent severe illness and hospitalization. The vaccines that currently have emergency use approval, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, have not been shown to prevent infection.

This means that people who are vaccinated may be able to get infected and could transmit the virus to others, although the probability of that happening might be lower than that of unvaccinated people. Experts are focused on gathering more data to see if transmission is happening. There’s also limited data on how the vaccine works for people who are immunocompromised and how well it protects against the coronavirus variants.

Since vaccinated people may still be able to shed virus, wearing masks in public spaces will be important for keeping others safe from exposure. Keeping distance between people will also keep others safe. All these health guidelines are meant to reduce transmission.

There have been changes in recommendations for what people who are fully vaccinated can do. The guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were updated to say that people who were fully vaccinated could spend time unmasked indoors with other fully vaccinated people.

“Though the risk of disease may be minimal to the fully vaccinated person themselves, they should be mindful of their potential risk of transmitting the virus to others if they become infected, especially if they are visiting with unvaccinated people at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 or who have unvaccinated people at increased risk for severe disease in their own households,” according to the CDC guidelines.

The risk of transmission in these settings is low enough for that, and since all parties are vaccinated, the risk of developing severe illness is also low.


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It’s also important to note that vaccination progress varies from state to state, with some estimated to have vaccinated fewer than 45,000 people out of every 100,000 and others achieving 50,000 to 60,000, according to the CDC vaccine tracker. These vaccination rates affect your risk when you go out to do grocery shopping, take public transport or spend any time indoors with people outside your household or bubble. It affects the chances that you could be standing next to someone who is unvaccinated and/or infected. It’s also something to keep in mind if you are traveling domestically.

Because the coronavirus is still circulating in the population, including variants, it’s important to try to reduce transmission rates as much as possible. Cases are also spiking in several states, meaning that even as people get vaccinated, expanding interactions with more people could expose more people to the virus and keep transmission going.

For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.


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Published on Apr 10, 2021