En español | If it has been at least two weeks since you received your last dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, congratulations! You are now considered “fully vaccinated.” You are armed with our best weapon against a virus that has killed more than 3.3 million people worldwide and upended our lives in unimaginable ways.
That is truly something worth celebrating.
But before you throw caution to the wind (or throw a party), it’s important to remember that the coronavirus is still spreading and the majority of Americans have yet to be vaccinated — so some precautions continue to be necessary to protect yourself and the people around you.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published specific guidance about what the fully vaccinated can do and cannot do, and AARP has asked experts to answer other common questions about life after vaccination. Here are 10 things you should know now that you’ve been jabbed.
1. You still need a mask — but only in some situations
People who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear a mask in most indoor and outdoor settings, large or small, the CDC announced on May 13.
“We have all longed for this moment, when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a news briefing, pointing to the effectiveness of the vaccines against the virus and the variants and the steady decline in COVID-19 cases in the U.S.
Masks will still be required on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation, as well as in transportation hubs like airports and train stations. Walensky also noted that health care facilities “will continue to follow their specific infection-control recommendations” — plus businesses and workplaces can set their own guidance.
“If things get worse, there is always a chance we may need to make a change to these recommendations, but we know that the more people are vaccinated, the less cases we will have, and the less chance of a new spike or additional variants emerging,” Walensky said.
Immunocompromised individuals should talk to their health care provider before ditching their masks. “They may need to keep taking all precautions to prevent COVID-19,” the CDC says.
2. You could still catch COVID-19
Although all three vaccines authorized for emergency use in the U.S. have proved to be highly effective against severe disease and death from COVID-19, there’s still a chance you could get infected with the virus — also known as a breakthrough case.
No vaccine prevents illness 100 percent of the time, according to the CDC. However, real-world studies show the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are 94 percent effective against hospitalization from COVID-19 among fully vaccinated adults. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 66.1 percent effective in multi-country clinical trials and 72 percent effective in U.S. trials.
“The whole point of a vaccine is that it prevents you from dying or ending up in the hospital,” says Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health and an investigator in COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials. “But you may still get sick.”
3. You could infect someone else
There’s also a small chance that you could get infected with the virus and not even realize it, and then you could transmit it to someone who is not vaccinated, says Kristen Marks, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medicine who leads COVID-19 vaccine trials.
Researchers are still studying whether the vaccines prevent the asymptomatic spread of the virus, she says. Early data indicates that they likely do, and the CDC’s Walensky pointed to this as a reason for the agency’s updated mask guidance for vaccinated individuals. Still, research is ongoing.
4. You can visit friends and family
After a year-plus of keeping a distance from friends and family, fully vaccinated people can gather indoors or outdoors with others, without wearing masks or physical distancing, the CDC says.
That means you can visit (and hug!) your unvaccinated children and grandchildren. What’s important is to keep unvaccinated households from mingling, since “prevention measures are still recommended for unvaccinated people,” the CDC says.
5. You don’t have to quarantine after exposure
You do not have to quarantine or get tested after an exposure to someone with the coronavirus, as long as you aren’t experiencing any symptoms, the CDC says. If you develop a cough, fever, shortness of breath, diarrhea or other symptoms of COVID-19, however, you should get tested.
6. You should keep your vaccine record card handy
In the future, you may need proof of vaccination to travel, work in certain industries or attend large events, Parikh says. Several other countries already have a validation system in the works, and a number of private companies in the U.S. are working on creating a digital passport that would include your vaccination status. “Obviously, your vaccine card is your main proof right now,” Parikh adds.
Your card may also come in handy to confirm which vaccine you received, and when you received it, if a booster dose is required. If you didn’t hang on to your card, the provider that administered your vaccine should have an electronic or paper record of it.
7. Pack your bags: You can travel
Because people who are fully vaccinated are less likely to get and spread COVID-19, they can now travel “at low risk to themselves” in the U.S., the CDC says. Fully vaccinated travelers do not need a coronavirus test before or after domestic travel, unless required by their destination. They also don’t need to self-quarantine after a trip.
When it comes to international travel, fully vaccinated individuals do not need to get tested before leaving the U.S., unless required by their destination. However, a negative test is required before returning to the States. What’s more, fully vaccinated travelers do not need to self-quarantine following international travel.
Just remember: The coronavirus is still spreading in many areas throughout the world, so it’s a good idea to pay attention to the state of COVID-19 in your destination and check on any local travel requirements before you finalize your trip.
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8. It’s a good time to go to the doctor or dentist
Countless Americans put their health care on hold due to the pandemic. Now that you’re vaccinated, it’s time to schedule that colonoscopy, dental cleaning or elective surgery you’ve been putting off. “Being vaccinated, now is the safest it has been to have surgery in well over a year,” says Beverly Philip, M.D., president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists.
The only screening you may want to hold off getting right away is your mammogram. Many women develop swelling in the lymph nodes in their underarm after vaccination, the CDC says. Although the swelling is a normal sign that your body is building protection to the coronavirus, it could cause a false mammogram reading. For that reason, some experts recommend waiting four to six weeks after you are fully vaccinated to get a mammogram.
9. You may need a booster shot
Marks says there are two reasons we might need a booster shot: if our immunity wears off naturally or if the virus changes so much that the immunity we have from the current vaccines proves inadequate.
Researchers still don’t know how long immunity from the vaccines will last. “We’re collecting data,” Marks says. “The phase 3 trials only started last summer, and the data lags a few weeks behind that.”
The current vaccines provide some protection against the coronavirus variants circulating right now. But a few contain a mutation that may allow the virus to elude some of the antibodies produced through vaccines. The vaccine manufacturers are working to create booster shots or updated versions of their shots to improve protection against those variants.
Chances are that we will have to get some kind of COVID-19 shot on a regular basis, perhaps once every three years or every year, like the flu shot.
10. A return to normal hinges on herd immunity
Before life can get totally back to normal, experts say that first we need to reach herd immunity — when enough Americans are vaccinated to significantly slow the spread of the virus. Estimates of when we will reach that point range from this summer to early 2022.
“I’m very optimistic about summertime, when rates will naturally reduce and the number of people we’ve been able to vaccinate will make it so that the virus is not being transmitted as quickly,” Marks said. “The wild card is the variants.”
Factors that will affect that timeline include the percentage of Americans willing to get the vaccine, how quickly a vaccine for children of all ages is authorized and how well the vaccines work against more contagious variants of the virus.
AARP’s Rachel Nania contributed reporting.
Michelle Crouch is a contributing writer who has covered health and personal finance for some of the nation's top consumer publications. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Prevention, The Washington Post and The New York Times.