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Being Vaccinated Doesn't Mean It's Safe To Take Off The Mask

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Once you get vaccinated, you may be anxious for more freedom. Seeing loved ones traveling, going out to dinner - yes, please. But given that only about 20% of the adult population in the U.S. has been vaccinated so far, infectious disease experts say it is still important to be cautious. So what is it safe to do after vaccination? NPR's Allison Aubrey is here to tell us. Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Let me start with the thing I, personally, am most yearning to do, which is travel, roam the world, see people. Here's a scenario top of mind for - I know - so many people. Say your parents or your grandparents are now fully vaccinated. Is it safe to go visit?

AUBREY: You know, the risk really depends on whether you've been vaccinated, too. I mean, for months now, infectious disease experts have been telling me they would not personally take the risk of traveling to see elderly relatives. But as more people get vaccinated, this, fortunately, is changing. I spoke to Judy Guzman-Cottrill. She's an infectious disease doctor at Oregon Health and Science University. She is now fully vaccinated and has planned a trip.

JUDY GUZMAN-COTTRILL: My elderly parents live in the Midwest, and I live in Oregon. And they've received their first dose of vaccine. And I've already booked my ticket to visit them in April. It'll be a few weeks after their second dose, and I can't wait to hug them.

AUBREY: Lots of people are waiting for those hugs, you know, but she says she will continue to take precautions during this trip. She will wear a mask. She will avoid crowds, wash hands and play it safe.

KELLY: All right. But let me stop you here, Allison, because just to - she's vaccinated. Her parents are vaccinated. Why does she still need to take all those precautions?

AUBREY: You know, it's a point of frustration, even confusion for many. But this is the bottom line. It is very clear that once you've been vaccinated with any of the three vaccines authorized in the U.S., you are very well-protected against illness, especially serious illness from COVID. But what has been less clear is whether people who are vaccinated could get exposed, infected and perhaps transmit the virus.

We've been in a holding pattern for a while as the data have come in, and there's not a conclusive answer yet. But I did speak to infectious disease epidemiologist Saad Omer at Yale University about this. He says the risk appears to be quite low. More information is coming in, for instance, from Israel, where more than half the population has received a vaccine.

SAAD OMER: I think things are changing, and I do believe we have increasing direct and indirect evidence that suggests that there is substantial protection against getting infected and transmitting. That's encouraging.

AUBREY: So it's encouraging, but not yet conclusive. Officials at the CDC are actually mulling over now how best to gradually relax restrictions. And it seems the place they may likely start is to signal that small groups of vaccinated people can gather. The term the CDC director, Walensky, has used on this program yesterday is baby steps. It will be gradual.

KELLY: Let's talk about all the people who have not been vaccinated yet, which is most of us. Can we go visit grandma and grandpa or others who have been vaccinated?

AUBREY: You know, the risk is not zero, but Dr. Zeke Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania says there are things you can do to limit, to reduce the risks. He says timing is important. Wait two weeks after your loved ones have received their second dose, or in the case of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, their single dose. Then the ideal scenario is short, frequent visits.

ZEKE EMANUEL: Keep a good mask on, and make sure it fits well. I prefer the N95. Do the visit outdoors if possible. And as spring is coming, it's going to be a lot easier to do that. Go walk in the park. And if you're going to have a meal together, the meal should be outdoors and with good distancing because you're going to have the mask off while you're eating.

AUBREY: Emanuel says for now, bottom line, it's best to air on the side of caution. A few months from now, when a larger share of the country's vaccinated, hopefully the virus isn't circulating as widely. All of this guidance will continue to evolve.

KELLY: Cannot wait. That is NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you very much, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.