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The CDC says that people who are fully vaccinated can get together indoors without masks or physical distancing. Getty Images
  • The CDC has released new guidelines for vaccinated people, stating that small social gatherings are allowed if everyone in the group has been vaccinated.
  • The CDC still recommends continued vigilance with regard to mask-wearing and physically distancing in public.
  • Experts interviewed by Healthline recommend a cautious approach to social gatherings, as a vaccinated person might still spread the virus.

After close to a year of pandemic fatigue, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidelines today for people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

With those recommendations is a glimmer of hope that things will return back to normal sooner rather than later.

The guidelines state that people in the United States who are 2 weeks past their final vaccination can gather indoors with other vaccinated people without masks or physical distancing.

They also state that vaccinated people can visit unvaccinated people from a single household without masks or distancing if those people are at low risk for COVID-19.

The CDC also says that vaccinated people can skip quarantine and testing if they’re exposed to someone with COVID-19 who’s asymptomatic. However, they say that vaccinated people should still monitor their symptoms for 14 days.

The agency also recommends that measures already in place, like physical distancing and mask-wearing in public, continue in other circumstances and for people who aren’t vaccinated.

While it doesn’t represent a full return to normalcy, the CDC’s announcement is a step in that direction after months of stay-at-home orders.

It also opens the door for social gatherings again, assuming everyone has been vaccinated.

Healthline spoke last week with several experts who gave their thoughts on plans to slowly but surely adjust to post-lockdown life.

After about a year of pandemic-related disruptions to everyday life, it’s tempting to treat small steps like the CDC announcement as confirmation that the pandemic is over.

While there’s reason for optimism — especially with the vaccine roll-out underway — the return to normal life won’t come with the snap of a finger, experts say.

They say that the return will be a long, gradual process, and it’s important to remain vigilant.

Beth Beatriz, PhD, an epidemiologist who works at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in the Bureau of Community Health and Prevention as well as serving as a COVID-19 advisor at Parenting Pod, told Healthline that now isn’t time to throw caution to the wind.

“It is really tempting to let your guard down and enjoy ‘normal’ activities once you are vaccinated, but I really urge you not to do so at this point in the vaccine roll-out,” she cautioned.

“The main issue is this: The vaccines have been shown to be highly effective against stopping you from getting really sick or dying from COVID-19 — once you have gotten your full dosage and given your body time to develop immunity — but we still don’t know if they are effective in preventing you from spreading the virus.”

In other words, although a group of fully vaccinated people might be able to get together without incident, they could still pass the virus.

And if anyone from that group spends time with someone who isn’t vaccinated, that person could get sick.

To mitigate risk, Beatriz recommends adhering to the same measures most of us have become accustomed to: Wear a mask and physically distance when inside.

Because aerosol transmission is more likely indoors, it’s best to limit social gatherings to small groups and to do so outside, says Beatriz.

In addition, experts say it’s important to recognize that current vaccines likely won’t represent the end of COVID-19 and its variants.

Dr. Sunny Jha, an anesthesiologist at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas, helped start the Los Angeles Surge Hospital for COVID-19 patients last spring.

He told Healthline that variants of the virus will continue to appear.

“Unfortunately, increasing frequency of new COVID variants do place us at risk for having a new version of the virus which may ‘escape’ protection from the vaccine, akin to the modern-day flu,” said Jha.

“This would be a dramatic setback, as was seen with the South African variant, which appears to be the most resistant to the vaccines. Therefore, it is important to avoid having individuals become infected and exposed to the virus, regardless of vaccination status, because the more times the virus replicates, the higher the likelihood of a variant which can evade protection from the vaccine.”

Sarah Raskin, PhD, a medical anthropologist and assistant professor in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, told Healthline that the past year, with its lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, has taken its toll on many people.

“People who are extroverted in their tendencies have really suffered. People who are older, people who are single and don’t want to be, and people away from their families have all had trouble,” Raskin explained.

“And then we also have the inverse, which is people who have had negative effects of lockdown in situations where they’re trapped with people who are harmful to them — people with violent partners or family members whose coping mechanisms aren’t healthy.”

With the CDC guidelines representing a small but significant step toward normal social interactions, Raskin says that the return to normalcy will likely take some getting used to.

“The reality is that we’ll be confronting a lot of personal awkwardness, entering into a bit more of a consent culture in which we’re asking about taking masks off,” she said. “I think it’s welcome and overdue in many social interactions.”

The possibility of gathering with friends and family again raises a thorny question: How does one deal with people whose risk tolerance is different? Raskin says it’s all about being generous in our relationships and putting the needs of others first.

“I think we need to think about who has a lower risk tolerance in our relationships and deferring to them. We want to not be coercive with our friends and family who for good reason want to continue being cautious,” she explained.

“Similarly, you can think of an inverse scenario where a group of friends wants to get together once everyone is vaccinated, and one person is reluctant to get their vaccine, so they don’t get invited to that gathering. That person would also need to respect that the other friends in the group have chosen to be vaccinated. It cuts both ways. It’s good for us to respect other people’s boundaries.”