It’s been over a year since the COVID-19 crisis was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Since then, the United States has had 32.5 million cases* and 579 thousand deaths*. Many people have stayed home for weeks at a time in the name of slowing the spread and saving lives — a noble cause we should all keep working towards. But in late 2020, we began to get the first glimpses of the light at the end of the tunnel. Two highly effective vaccines were approved for distribution from Pfizer and Moderna. Then, in early 2021, other vaccines, like the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, were announced and approved.

If you’re one of the many that have received a COVID vaccine, it may make you want to immediately try to return to normal life. You could be tempted to go to the grocery store without a mask or throw a party. It could feel like you’re out of the woods, and it’s time to celebrate. Is that the correct thing to do, though? What can you do after you receive the COVID vaccine?

*Up to date as of 5/10/2021

A Question of Dosage

First, what you do depends on which vaccine you’re given. If you’re given a single-dose vaccine, you can skip to the next section, because you’ve already gotten your full dosage (though there are studies currently underway of a two-dose shot regimen for added protection).

While the first shot will offer some protection, it’s not the full amount you’d receive from a full dose.

For those that received a standard two-dose shot, you should absolutely wait until you receive both doses before changing the way you’re acting at all. While the first shot will offer some protection, it’s not the full amount you’d receive from a full dose. With this in mind, you should essentially act like you haven’t received the shot, just to be safe, especially since studies show that the vaccination doesn’t begin protecting you until around two weeks after receiving it.

Masks and Social Distancing

So you’ve received the full dose of your vaccine, and now you’re ready to return to life unhindered by precautions. Right? Goodbye, masks. Goodbye, social distancing. Goodbye, handwashing. Well, not quite. While the vaccination can offer you a degree of confidence and freedom due to the protection you have, it’s still important to follow some basic mitigation rules, like mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand-washing. There are a few reasons for this. Even though you are greatly protected by the vaccines, there’s still a slight chance you could catch COVID, especially if you’ve just received the vaccination (as we mentioned earlier). More signifcantly, you could become a silent spreader.

Vaccines generally do three things: stop you from catching the illness, stop you from spreading the illness, or stop you from getting symptoms from the illness.

Vaccines generally do three things: stop you from catching the illness, stop you from spreading the illness, or stop you from getting symptoms from the illness. The best can do all three, but right now, we’re not certain if the COVID vaccines can, though a promising body of evidence is building. Until we know for sure, there’s a chance that a vaccinated person could catch COVID, not have any symptoms, and spread it. While we’re pretty sure that vaccinated people are a lot less likely to catch it and pass it on, until we know for sure and we reach crowd immunity, it’s wise to continue wearing masks and practice social distancing.

What About the Variants?

At this point, you’ve likely heard about the variants of COVID-19 that are beginning to spread around the United States, primarily the ones first discovered in the United Kingdom, Brazil, and South Africa. These variants are believed to be both more contagious and more deadly than the novel form of COVID-19. They are also a reason we should continue to practice COVID-safe habits, like handwashing and mask-wearing.

It was once feared, and now is confirmed, that the vaccines may be less effective against the variants, though still very effective compared to other vaccines. This is partially why the Johnson & Johnson efficacy rates were lower than previous vaccines — they were tested against the variants. While you should still be practicing COVID-safe habits, the vaccine manufacturers are working on booster shots that should aid in efficacy against the variants of COVID.

When Can Things Return to Normal?

At this stage, there’s no way to be certain about when things could return to normal, unfortunately. There are just too many variables for an accurate timeline to be drawn up. If you asked a group of experts when they thought things would go back to normal, you’d likely get a different answer from each, if you got an answer at all. Some experts guess that you’ll start to see some normalcy return by April, while others are guessing closer to the end of 2021 or the beginning of 2022. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to President Biden, has been aiming for some time in summer to early fall for a little while now. We’ll likely still be masking and social distancing, to some degree, for the foreseeable future, though this is changing as more people get vaccinated.

● ● ●

With all that in mind, you should still get the vaccine when you can if you are able to. There are so many good reasons beyond just returning to a sense of normalcy. You’ll protect yourself. You’ll protect those you care about (or even just strangers you don’t know). You’ll also be helping to prevent further variants, since the disease can’t mutate if it doesn’t spread. Finally, getting vaccinated can return some semblance of normalcy, even if you still have to wear a mask.

The sooner we get everyone vaccinated, the sooner we can start seeing each other indoors or dining out carefree. The pandemic has been hard on everyone and it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness. It’s important to look at the positives and to get help if you’re struggling emotionally. We’re in the home stretch, so if we keep this up, as a country, we can reclaim our sense of normal!