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You're Vaccinated. Congrats! Now What Can You Do Safely?

ANDEE TAGLE, HOST:

This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Andee Tagle, one of the producers of the show. And today, listeners, I went for a run without a mask on. I repeat, I went for a run out in the world mask-free. And it was so weird. The fully vaccinated lower half of my face immediately wanted to retreat. And I had to resist the urge to shout at every passerby, don't judge me; I got the shot. The CDC said it's safe now. I swear. I'll send you the link.

Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have now given fully vaccinated people the nod to go without masks in some settings, we've been living in this double masked, socially distant world for so long that it's hard to just flip a switch because possibly the only thing stranger than pandemic life, friends, is the first step you take away from it. So how do we cope facing this new one foot in, one foot out reality? The answer, it seems, one small step at a time. So in this episode of LIFE KIT, we'll help answer your questions about what comes next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAGLE: With me is science desk correspondent Maria Godoy. Hey, Maria.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Hey, Andee.

TAGLE: OK, Maria. So recently, the CDC came out with new guidance for fully vaccinated people - and lots of good news when it comes to masks, right? Can you walk us through some of that?

GODOY: Right. Well, the CDC said if you're fully vaccinated - and just to be clear, fully vaccinated means at least two weeks out from your second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two weeks out from the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. CDC says if you meet that criteria, then you don't need a mask anymore when you're outdoors - except if you're in a crowd. So like, if you're in a packed baseball game or you're at a crowded farmers market, then you're still going to wear a mask. But just going out to walk the dog, you do not need a mask anymore, which is great news.

It is, however, somewhat confusing for some people, so I spoke with Linsey Marr. She's an aerosols researcher at Virginia Tech, so she studies how viruses transit in the air. And she's also studied masks. She gave me this really great, easy-to-imagine, easy-to-use rule of thumb for when to mask.

LINSEY MARR: My general rules of thumb would be if I'm having a face-to-face conversation with someone and if I can put my arms sort of out and they're within arm's reach for more than a minute or two, then I would mask.

GODOY: And Marr says that rule applies when you don't know if someone is vaccinated. If you know they're fully vaccinated, no need for masks.

TAGLE: Wow. That's great news. OK - so having a face-to-face conversation within arm's reach and for more than a minute or two.

GODOY: Exactly. And the reason for that is is just all the research that's come out over the last year suggests that outdoor transmission is a whole lot less likely to occur than indoor transmission when it comes to this virus.

Dr. Monica Gandhi of UC San Francisco points to one really strong study from China, where they traced back thousands of coronavirus cases.

MONICA GANDHI: They did really careful contact tracing out of 7,324 infections. Only one they could even trace to outdoor transmission. That's how rare we are. The risk of transmission is so much lower outside.

TAGLE: So outdoor activities where there's not too many people, we're square.

GODOY: Yeah, absolutely. And we've been hearing this throughout the pandemic, really. You know, in general, anything outdoors is going to be a lot safer than indoors because there's just so much air to disperse the virus. So all the fresh air out there is just going to push those virus particles away as soon as they're expelled. They don't have time to hover and hang out and infect you.

TAGLE: OK. So how can we gauge our risk level from situation to situation? How do we know what's safe to do, when we feel safe in a situation to go maskless?

GODOY: I think everybody who's been fully vaccinated is asking themselves this (laughter). Right? The CDC has put out guidelines for a lot of interactions. But the truth is, for a lot of other things we do, there's just no set rule book. And instead, there are some questions you should ask yourself or general things to keep in mind before you set out to do something. You know, one is, is the activity outdoors versus indoors, because as we talked about, outdoors is much less risk. Are you meeting up with people that are fully vaccinated, or are there unvaccinated people that you're going to be meeting with? Are they more vulnerable to the virus, like someone who is immunocompromised, you know, for instance? You want to be more careful around them. How many people are going to be present? Because vaccinated or not, the more people at a gathering, the more risk there is. And the other thing to consider is, what are the case counts in your area like? If there's a lot of transmission in your community, you're just going to want to be more careful than if case counts are really low.

TAGLE: Right. And people who are vaccinated need to remember, of course, that it isn't just about them.

GODOY: Right. It's not about you. For instance, when you're out and about, you don't know if the people around you are vaccinated or not. While a lot of Americans have gotten vaccinated, there's still a lot of us that haven't. The other thing to remember is there are people who may not get full protection from vaccination, like people who are severely immunocompromised. There's research suggesting they may not respond as well to the vaccine. So we still have to be careful around them. And again, if you are in a public space, you don't know who fits into that category.

TAGLE: Right. So just because you're vaccinated doesn't mean it's a free for all, doesn't mean you can go and do whatever you want.

GODOY: Right. You still have to think about other people. Just don't be a jerk. (Laughter).

TAGLE: Don't be a jerk. I like that. That's a great rule of thumb.

GODOY: That's generally, like, you know, a good rule for life. I'm going to go ahead and endorse that.

TAGLE: That's what I was going to say. Vaccinated or not, I think that's a great rule.

GODOY: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

TAGLE: OK. So let's go through some frequently asked questions about do's and don'ts when it comes to post-vaccination life. Why don't we start with masks? If you're fully vaccinated, what should your mask strategy be?

GODOY: If you are going indoors into a public space, like going grocery shopping, hitting the mall, you still need to be wearing a mask. If you're going on an airplane, wear a mask. If you are socializing indoors with friends who are also fully vaccinated, you don't need to wear a mask. That's according to the CDC.

TAGLE: What about social gatherings? What are the rules there?

GODOY: All right. Well, good news - if you're fully vaccinated and you want to hang out with your best friend who is fully vaccinated or 10 best friends who are fully vaccinated, go ahead and...

TAGLE: Ten?

GODOY: ...Gather indoors. Yeah, 10. Actually, that's interesting. I do say 10 because, funny enough, the CDC said it's perfectly fine to, you know, hang out indoors with your fully vaccinated friends, but avoid medium- to large-size gatherings. And they did not give you a number to say what a medium- to large-sized gathering is. But several infectious disease experts I've spoken with suggested 10 would be a good rule of thumb. So that's what I'm going with.

Now, if you want to meet up indoors with another family that is not fully vaccinated, the guidance is to limit it to just one other unvaccinated household. When I think about this rule, I call it the grandparents rule because it's really kind of designed for that situation where grandma and grandpa are vaccinated; they want to see their grandkid who isn't vaccinated. And...

TAGLE: Sure.

GODOY: ...Basically, the CDC is saying, yeah, you can go see them, give them a hug, et cetera.

(LAUGHTER)

TAGLE: OK. Here's a big one. I know we're all itching for it. What about travel? What's the risk assessment there?

GODOY: OK. So the good news is if you're fully vaccinated, the CDC says domestic travel is safe for you. You still have to wear a mask when you travel. You still have to keep physical distance at the airport, et cetera. But go ahead. Now, the one thing is, because we are still in a pandemic - and again, a lot of people out there still aren't vaccinated - experts suggest don't go wild with the travel, you know, maybe have a higher threshold than usual. So maybe don't hop on a plane with your, you know, 20-person choir group to go...

TAGLE: Man.

GODOY: ...See the monuments, you know. But - right. But if you haven't seen your mom in a year or you need to get away for your mental health, that's a valid reason, and you should go and feel good about going.

TAGLE: So this isn't, you know, anywhere I want, anytime I want. This isn't a blank check.

GODOY: Right. It's not anywhere you want, anytime you want. I mean, again, it's being community minded and thinking about other people, too. Right? And especially international travel, CDC says, definitely wait till you're fully vaccinated to do it, but it does pose more risk even if you are fully vaccinated, in part because there may be variants of concern circulating in the country you're going to. And you risk, you know, being exposed and bringing them back to you and helping them circulate here.

And the other thing you really got to think about when you travel abroad is, how bad is the pandemic hitting them? Are the hospitals overloaded with COVID patients? Because even if you don't get sick with COVID while you're abroad, if you break your leg or you have a heart attack, you are going to be in trouble if those hospitals can't see you because they're flooded, you know, overwhelmed with COVID patients. So that's something you've really got to consider. And then you also will need a negative test to get back into the U.S. So you have to consider, where can I get that test - where in the country I'm in? And can I get it within three days? - which is what you need.

TAGLE: OK. What about dining? We we know that outdoor is always better for cutting down on chances of spreading COVID-19. But how safe is it to dine indoors if you're fully vaccinated?

GODOY: You know, it's probably much safer now than at any other point in the pandemic if you're fully vaccinated. But it's not completely without risk. And before you go and make that reservation, find out if that restaurant has good ventilation, good spacing between tables, if staff are wearing masks. And really, you know, those masks are probably to protect you, but also to protect the staff and any unvaccinated customers. You got to think about, you know, the rest of the community. It's not just about you. If they're not enforcing mask-wearing, maybe that restaurant isn't the kind of place you want to support 'cause they're not thinking - they're not being community-minded and looking out for others.

TAGLE: Right. Like we said, rule of vaccinated life and rule of general life - just don't be a jerk. Good rule of thumb.

GODOY: Yes, don't be a jerk. That is the theme of this episode (laughter).

TAGLE: I really that.

OK. And it sounds like just in general, what you're saying here is the more you can control your situation, the better. So indoor dining, while it's OK, you can control less of the situation, so outdoors is still better.

GODOY: Right. And again, you should - the safer - if you're going to go indoor dining, like, everybody in your party should be fully vaccinated. It's a lot riskier for them if you're bringing someone unvaccinated with you.

TAGLE: Got it.

OK. Let's talk about the gym. Lots of people miss that space to work out.

GODOY: I do.

TAGLE: Maria, I know you and I were spin buddies back in the day. I wonder if we'll ever get that back.

GODOY: Yeah, I don't even know if I can spin anymore. Like, my legs have lost all muscle tone (laughter).

TAGLE: Neither can I. I don't know. I'm so curious. You know, it was a good stress reliever for a lot of people. I know it was for us. But it's also a pretty easy place to spread COVID. So...

GODOY: Right. I have told LIFE KIT listeners in more than one episode how much I love exercise. It's so important for mental health. I'm personally not ready to go back to the gym yet because gyms were considered one of the highest-risk settings for people who are unvaccinated. But if you're fully vaccinated, the risk of a gym visit is now a lot more moderate, so hooray. But you should remember to stick to the machines, keep your mask on and maintain physical distance from other gymgoers. And if you're going to a gym, you want to go to one that is keeping those machines spaced and is enforcing mask wear for people who go there. I would avoid indoor fitness classes, in part because multiple outbreaks in the U.S. and abroad have been tied to indoor group classes, even when physical distancing was in place. And it can be hard to make sure you have enough space from your neighbor when you're Zumba-ing shaking those hips. You know?

TAGLE: That makes sense.

GODOY: So experts say if you're going to a fitness class, keep it outdoors. Indoor ones are probably still not a great idea. But that said, not getting exercise is also a risk to your health long term. So if you feel mentally ready to go back to the gym, go ahead. Just, you know, maybe try and go when it's less busy. Keep those masks on. Stick to the machines.

TAGLE: OK. Maria, big question now, finally - hugs. Can I please, please hug my friends now?

GODOY: Oh, my gosh. Please do. We are living with a very large hug deficit in the world right now.

TAGLE: Oh, my gosh, yes. Thank you.

GODOY: Yep. If you are fully vaccinated, you feel you should go ahead and have a hug marathon with all those friends. If you're fully vaccinated and they're fully vaccinated, hug away. Even if they're not fully vaccinated, it's probably OK to give them that hug. Just keep your mask on, turn your face away and squeeze. They'll feel better. You'll feel better. The love will spread (laughter).

TAGLE: I already feel better just thinking about it. Hug away, you say. I love it.

GODOY: Hug away.

TAGLE: Maria, you're fully vaccinated, right?

GODOY: Yeah, I am - as of yesterday, actually.

TAGLE: Congratulations. How do you feel?

GODOY: I'm not sure how to feel. It's funny. Yesterday, I went for a walk with my husband, and we were a few blocks away from our house and I realized I'd forgotten to grab a mask. And I mean, that's been a part of my daily life for a whole year-plus. And it was just - it was weird. It was...

TAGLE: Weird, right?

GODOY: ...Very weird. But I am so grateful that I have the vaccine. Thank you, science. I think we can't say that enough. Thank you, science.

TAGLE: Thank you, science. I would hug science if science was around to hug because we can hug away now.

GODOY: (Laughter) Exactly.

TAGLE: Thank you so much, Maria. This was great.

GODOY: Yeah, my pleasure. Here's a virtual hug for you - squeeze.

(LAUGHTER)

TAGLE: For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. Maria has episodes about how to eat less meat and intuitive eating. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. If you've got a suggestion for an episode or a random tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us the voice memo at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode was produced by Meghan Keane, who's also our managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. This episode was edited by Clare Lombardo. Special thanks to Carmel Wroth. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo. And our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. I'm Andee Tagle. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.