“We kept asking, ‘Wait, was that a mistake? What have we done? ... Will we regret this?’ " Roney says. Both she and her friend work in health care; they hadn’t seen each other in more than a year. “It was one hug between two fully vaccinated people who had essentially cut ourselves off socially,” she says, “but after being so isolated, it felt like throwing away every personal sacrifice made up to that point.”
For more than a year, Americans like Roney have been advised to distance from friends and family or risk sickening themselves and others. While the threat has been consistent, the ways we protect each other has changed. In the absence of clear guidance, civilians have been tasked with piecing together armchair degrees in epidemiology and deciding for themselves which health risks they’re willing to take, and when.
Vaccines play crucial roles in reducing risk and getting the country to herd immunity. To increase vaccination rates, government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are banking on the social freedoms that vaccines could provide as leverage.
“One of their most effective messages [for increasing vaccination rates] is get vaccinated so that you can see your loved ones,” says Dr. Wändi Bruine de Bruin, who studies the psychology of risk perception and behavioral decision-making at the University of Southern California.
In the past two weeks, the CDC has announced new guidance giving fully vaccinated people clearance to unmask indoors with other fully vaccinated people and to unmask outside with unvaccinated people at low risk for severe COVI-19. But it also upped the ante by further expanding that guidance Tuesday. It said unvaccinated people at low risk of severe COVID could meet with vaccinated people in unmasked indoor settings, provided each party belongs to a single household. Arguably, it’s the most significant rule-loosening since the pandemic started, giving vaccinated people their indoor social lives back in small doses.
For many fully or partly vaccinated people who’ve been dreaming about the day they could share a meal indoors with friends or hold a sibling’s hand, the shift feels like whiplash, or almost too good to be true. That might be the case. The guidance comes as local case rates — a key indicator of the safety precautions we should take — remain as high as they were in the summer. Variants are spreading. Our community is still far from herd immunity. And even experts don’t agree on what’s appropriate for vaccinated individuals. With local conditions so important to dictating what the change in our activity will be, it’s notable that Seattle has performed better than any other major metropolitan area in the U.S..
“We can’t let optimism blind us to the reality and uncertainty of our situation. We’re still giving the virus too many opportunities to spread right now, and increasing activity with increasing variants is a dangerous combination,” Dr. Jeff Duchin of Public Health — Seattle & King County said Friday on a media call. (On March 22, the county moved to Phase 3 of the Healthy Washington Roadmap to Recovery, allowing for more relaxed activity.)
And while early research into the extent to which vaccines can reduce transmission or asymptomatic infection is promising, the data so far is insufficient for the U.S. government to declare anything definite.
“Vaccinated people could potentially still get COVID-19 and spread it to others. However, the benefits of relaxing some measures such as quarantine requirements and reducing social isolation may outweigh the residual risk of fully vaccinated people becoming ill with COVID-19 or transmitting the virus to others,” the CDC writes in a recent scientific brief giving context to new guidance for fully vaccinated people.
Some vaccinated people are still taking a leap into socializing, or allowing themselves to plan near-term reunions, buoyed by official guidance in the face of these complexities.
But for many people in the country’s first pandemic hotspot — people who’ve seen some of the lowest metropolitan rates of death or disease because we’ve been cautious — the high risks still feel too high, despite new recommendations or our area’s relative success.
Dipping a toe back in
Art professional Melinda Simon has been fully vaccinated for nearly a month, and the difference feels enormous. She still feels cautious crossing home thresholds, but breaking multiple barriers on March 15 — her first post-lockdown hug, her first doctor appointment — was easier than she expected. She relishes every facet of reentry, every unguarded and unmasked conversation, every communal space and experience, like viewing museum exhibits with strangers.
“Each renewal has been precious in its frisson of novelty and familiarity. I want to hang on to that, not take 'normal' so for granted, not pack so much around it that everything becomes more muted,” she says. “But my doctor stuck out her hand for a handshake, and that was a jolt. I can still feel her skin.”
Carrie Shriver, who assists with contract tracing at a public health agency and works at an airport, has felt safer since receiving her second vaccine dose on Feb. 5. “Working in the public and with many co-workers in an office that is not big enough for us to properly socially distance has desensitized me to risk now that I'm vaccinated. I was super aware of risky things before and feel laxer now,” she says.
When she started taking walks with friends, it was with just one friend. But she’s started contacting more people to walk with, thinking they’ll feel safer around her, too. She’s about to start meeting with her vaccinated therapist in person, but they still plan to mask.
She was even considering going to see Ministry at the ShowBox on March 31, wearing an N95 mask. That would have been the venue’s first pandemic-era live show, but the band rescheduled for November. Shriver was conflicted. It would have been exciting to be at the first stop on a tour, but she also thinks touring is irresponsible right now, and doesn’t know if she would have wanted to support the band’s choice.
When it comes to family, Shriver wants to visit indoors with her vaccinated parents, who live in a nearby city. But despite vaccinations all around, they’re hesitant about variants and Shriver’s airport exposures. To get to her office, she often walks through baggage claim.
And her wife is unvaccinated: She and her wife love pinball and have gone out to play a few times, even before Shriver was vaccinated. “I feel totally safe about it, and she waffles back and forth. She'll do it one week and won't the next because the risk concerned her,” she says. If her wife didn’t want Shriver to go to the ShowBox concert, Shriver says she wouldn’t.
On the fence
Hoberta “Hoby” Hansen, 81, left her home in Cheney for the first time in a year a few weeks ago in order to get her first dose of vaccine. She gets her second dose Sunday.
“I will feel more secure after the second shot, but I don't really know, from all I'm reading, how much protection I will really have,” she says. When she heard the recent CDC guidance, she was floored in a bad way, she says.
“There are just too many unknowns at this point and with the new variants here in Washington I need to be even more careful,” she says.
When she’s fully vaccinated, she’ll go to doctor or dentist appointments, but she doesn’t expect much else to change.
After living with rheumatoid arthritis for 57 years, Hansen is used to taking precautions and protecting her boundaries. “I have had to make these kinds of decisions for years and years and years — of being able to say, ‘No, I can’t do that,’ ” she says. Hansen is used to communicating with people over social media. She spends time with her son, who lives next door, but has kept close with family over FaceTime and phone calls. A few weeks ago, when her granddaughter visited from out of state, Hansen insisted on masking up and staying on the porch.
“They don't want to lose a grandma, so it's actually been fine,” Hansen says. “I don't try to influence what they do when they're by themselves. but when they're with me, I’m The Enforcer.” Her friends have been similarly understanding. “In many ways we are closer than we were before the pandemic because of our concern for each other and thus our extra communication,” she says.
So many volunteers and organizations where Hansen lives have deployed to help the elderly that she’s had help with errands, like getting groceries delivered. “I guess the short of it is that I almost have more contact with people during a pandemic and have made more new friends, particularly the younger ones, than I had before. It seems very bizarre to me, but it's true,” she says.
“I'm at high enough risk that I don’t anticipate socializing like [before COVID] again,” she adds. “And I don't feel bad about that because I have enough socializing in other ways. And if you can be out on the porch and socialize with masks, it's almost as good.”
Thai Nguyen, a supporting housing specialist with Pioneer Human Services in Seattle, has asthma, and he felt a great weight lift when he received his first vaccine dose. Being vaccinated meant he felt safer in the field. But in spite of relaxed socializing restrictions, he’s erring on the side of caution. “I’m of the mindset that all of this is still pretty dangerous,” says Nguyen, who’s been part of efforts at work to devise safe ways to socialize during the pandemic. “I’m a boring vaccinated person…. I want to wait a long time until things have really kind of had time to settle.”
That caution has come at a personal cost: His family hasn’t been on the same page as he has been on pandemic safety. “Any excuse they had not to take the virus seriously, they did,” Nguyen says. Family members would meet regularly and have parties where they didn’t social distance well. “They at least are restricting the parties now and doing smaller or no gatherings, but last summer and fall there were gatherings of 5 to 15 people,” he says. Over time, especially as members of his community died from COVID, the family took things more seriously. His siblings have always been cautious, and are trying to convince his parents of the seriousness of things; they have their own bubbles beyond Nguyen’s parents as well.
For many people with doses upcoming or in their bodies, the fact that most of their neighbors still haven’t been inoculated makes them feel guilty about socializing with fewer restrictions.
“I think it’s been almost two years now since I’ve seen my family,” says Sammy Witness of Ballard, who is getting vaccinated with her partner this weekend. “One of my closest girlfriends had a baby months ago I haven’t seen. I have a new nephew I’d love to smush. My friends are getting married. All of that can wait until everyone who needs a vaccine has the opportunity to get one.”
Witness’ partner is in remission from Stage 4 cancer: Making high-risk health decisions, she says, is the name of the game for people in that situation. They’ve been “quarantining before it was cool.”
“Unfortunately, a lot of people we know have been pretending like being immune somehow means they can’t still pass on the virus,” she says, in reference to the lack of definitive guidance on transmission. (Vaccines were never designed to prevent transmission entirely.) “When our friends say, ‘I’m vaccinated so it doesn’t matter,’ what we’re hearing is, ‘I don’t care if people who are immune compromised die because I miss going to bar.’”
Eileen Roney, who is a clinic manager at a health facility and who interacts with patients and the public, said getting vaccinated gave her mixed emotions. Beyond that one hug, being at a public gathering with seven close friends she hadn’t seen in a year gave her strange feelings. “I couldn't tolerate the anxiety of how surreal it was to be back in public for frivolous reasons. I don't think I'll do it again anytime soon,” she says.
Being in dentistry has led her to be extremely cautious, to the point that she’s sometimes not on the same page as other people about what qualifies as safe behavior. She can interact with people now, but there’s been a lot of disagreement in the interim.
“I feel like much of my family and friends have essentially abandoned me at this point,” she says. “There was too much disinformation and it's like living in separate realities. Eventually I got tired of encouraging folks to wear masks and limit gatherings. You can only say that so many times and be blown off so many times before you give up.”
Vaccines create new opportunities for conflict. Talking about them makes unvaccinated people feel left behind, she says, which she empathizes with. “I had a friend ask me to filter posts about getting vaccinated because she couldn't tolerate not having access and seeing others return to normal without her,” she says.
Navigating these new waters
People who are vaccinated or have loved ones outside their bubbles who are vaccinated may feel new degrees of pressure to interact or more enthusiasm than others about interacting.
Jesse Bohlin, a Tacoma resident, says getting vaccinated has changed the way they talk to people. “I've noticed that we've collectively developed this weird way of greeting each other. We tend to ask each other, ‘Are you vaccinated?’ rather than ‘How are you?’ And if the answer is yes, we tend to mutually agree that it's OK to hug or take off our masks, if we're at each other's house or in a private space,” they say.
People’s experiences with illness can affect their willingness to take risks. Experts say listening, empathy and respect are important skills to practice in these conversations — skills that may require more effort after the heightened negative emotions that have dominated life for more than a year.
“Starting a conversation that devolves into an argument doesn’t help anyone, and it’s easier to lose trust than to earn it,” says Dr. Ajay Sethi, an infectious disease epidemiologist in the School of Public Health and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. He teaches a course where students learn how to have conversations about health with people who think differently. “Several respectful conversations may be needed to reach an agreement to socialize,” he says.
Sharon Bogan of Public Health — Seattle & King County says the CDC’s recent recommendations provide a good guide for people to follow, but before gathering individuals may need to consult their health care provider and consider the risk to and from those they plan to socialize with.
“In general, we know that gathering outdoors or indoors in well-ventilated spaces reduces risk of transmission, compared with gathering indoors in small or poorly ventilated spaces, so those are lower risk options for fully vaccinated individuals,” she says. “Our understanding of SARS-CoV-2 continues to evolve. For now, fully vaccinated people should continue to take precautions, including wearing a well-fitted mask and physical distancing when gathering with multiple households and when participating in social activities in public settings, such as dining at a restaurant.”
Personally, Sethi says, he would feel comfortable socializing unmasked with other vaccinated people, so long as everyone agreed to that, and adjusting social behaviors, depending on variants circulating in his community. However, he would wear a mask around an unvaccinated individual even if the person told him they’re at low risk for COVID.
“In a way, it all goes back to consent,” Bohlin says. “Do we both have enough information to make an informed decision about what is best for our personal safety?”
People who want to interact according to new guidance may need to pace themselves with less-comfortable family. “Sometimes you can find that middle ground. Maybe you can meet in a way that makes those who are concerned about the risk more at ease, while still achieving the benefits that others want,” USC’s Bruine de Bruin says.
That’s worked for Bohlin. For friends who aren’t vaccinated, they disclose that they are, and start a conversation about how everyone might feel safe. “Sometimes that means we take a walk while wearing masks. Sometimes that means we get drinks outside. It's always a discussion because just because I feel safer doesn't mean everyone does,” Bohlin says.
As more people get vaccinated and take the plunge, others will likely follow, Bruine de Bruin says: “And if you've taken a couple of risks, and nothing has happened, then maybe you get the idea it's not as risky as it seemed before.”
For vaccinated people still on the fence but eager to interact, Bruine de Bruin recommends taking things one step at a time. As Simon experienced shaking hands with her doctor, limitations are as much about sensory overload as caution.
And you can always take a step back.
“Every instance is a potential risk. Just because I did one potentially risky thing does not mean I should do it again,” Shriver says.
Update: On March 25 at 10:26 a.m., language was added to a paragraph to explicitly contextualize a sentence about King County phasing, to which the sentence preceding it linked out.