The Covid-19 vaccines are a medical marvel. But many people are still waiting their turn to get vaccinated. Right now, with more infectious variants spreading and no authorized vaccine for children, the risks of Covid-19 to unvaccinated people remain high.
While much of the national conversation has focused on what vaccinated people can do, it’s also the case that the unvaccinated can take advantage of the protection that many of their friends and neighbors now have. The social benefits of vaccination can also extend to those still waiting for their dose.
Before I got my Johnson & Johnson vaccination, I slowly expanded my close contacts to spend time unmasked and indoors with my fully vaccinated friends, while taking standard precautions otherwise. It’s a relatively safe way to make the pandemic more bearable for all of us while also keeping cases down.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the vaccines not only protect against severe illness, but also greatly reduce the risk of mild and asymptomatic cases, so they help prevent overall transmission too. Vaccinated people can get infected, but it is rare.
That means that for an unvaccinated person, spending time with a fully vaccinated person unmasked and indoors is far safer than the same contact with another unvaccinated person. While I wait for my vaccine to take full effect, I can reduce my personal risk of Covid-19 by socializing with vaccinated friends rather than unvaccinated friends.
The C.D.C. recently updated its guidelines to reflect new evidence that unmasked, indoor contact between fully vaccinated people and a single household of unvaccinated people is fairly safe, as long as none of the unvaccinated people or anyone they live with are at high risk for severe Covid-19 and the gathering size is small. Recently, we’ve seen many joyful unmasked, indoor reunions of fully vaccinated grandparents with their unvaccinated grandchildren.
Questions surrounding the Covid-19 vaccine and its rollout.
The key is that fully vaccinated people should visit with only one unvaccinated household at a time so that unvaccinated people from two or more households don’t come into contact with one another. This approach is similar to quarantine bubbles, but in this case, fully vaccinated people can interact with several different bubbles because their risk of transmitting the virus is so low. (Unvaccinated people should maintain standard precautions when in the presence of other unvaccinated people).
When unvaccinated people make the choice to spend time with fully vaccinated people rather than other unvaccinated people, they also help keep cases down overall. Though the risk is not zero, studies show that vaccinated people are unlikely to contract or spread the coronavirus, so they slow transmission and prevent outbreaks. Unvaccinated people who predominantly or exclusively spend time with fully vaccinated contacts have a very low chance of getting infected in the first place. And they therefore pose an even smaller risk of spreading it to others.
Some may worry that encouraging vaccinated people to interact with unvaccinated people, including unmasked and indoors, is irresponsible. But this strategy is consistent with C.D.C. recommendations. Rising vaccination rates allow both vaccinated and unvaccinated people to reap the benefits of social contact by gradually expanding whom they socialize with in a way that keeps Covid-19 risk to a minimum.
This can work well for households with unvaccinated children, too. Spending time with another household where every member is vaccinated is quite safe. For the lowest risk this means households with adults only, but it can include households with kids, too, once a pediatric vaccine is authorized. Unvaccinated children who spend time primarily with fully vaccinated people are less likely to contract or spread the coronavirus themselves.
If people too quickly expand the number of vaccinated people they spend time with, there is a small possibility it could lead to a minor uptick in case numbers. But even in this worst-case scenario, cases won’t spread very far.
For example, one unvaccinated infectious person could risk infecting several vaccinated contacts in a short period. Even though transmission between unvaccinated and fully vaccinated people is rare, breakthrough cases are possible. However, vaccinated contacts would be unlikely to spread the virus further so any outbreak would be small.
The wisdom of spending time with fully vaccinated friends is based on the same principle as herd immunity. Vaccinated people assist in protecting unvaccinated people by helping reduce transmission, which allows us all to return to normal activities even before everyone is vaccinated. This gives us a preview of herd immunity and helps ease the burden of the pandemic until we get there.
I’m grateful to my vaccinated friends for the chance to experience a little more normalcy safely in the midst of a pandemic. And when I’m protected, I’ll pay it forward.
Zoë McLaren is an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She studies health and economic policy to combat infectious disease epidemics including H.I.V., tuberculosis and Covid-19.
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