Millions of Americans wonder how they can emerge safely from their pandemic cocoons after getting coronavirus vaccines. Federal health officials issued long-awaited guidance Monday, saying that two weeks after their final shots, grandparents might visit with grandchildren who live nearby and dine at home with vaccinated friends - all without wearing masks. But the guidance from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention was necessarily broad.
To help fill in the blanks, The Washington Post asked five public health/infectious-diseases experts how they have navigated risk - and how their own lives have changed since getting inoculated. They all said they continue to take precautions, wearing masks and social distancing in public. All drew their lines in different places but exulted at the opportunities for more human connection.
Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine and infectious-diseases expert at the University of California at San Francisco
For the first time in a year, Ms Gandhi recently savoured eating indoors at two of her favourite restaurants in San Francisco - one Thai and one Japanese - after the city allowed limited indoor dining to resume.“I really enjoyed feeling warmer inside instead of being freezing cold outside - and not having to clean up after takeout,” she said.
But those nights out were not a complete throwback to pre-pandemic times. Tables were distanced, doors were open to the outside to boost ventilation, and the staff were all masked, she said. Ms Gandhi also wore her mask when she wasn’t eating.
As more colleagues have gotten shots, and her bubble of vaccinated friends has grown, she also hosted a dinner party, without masks or distancing.“
It was wonderful and made us feel ‘normal’ again after so long, to eat and talk together without restrictions,” she said. “We even hugged when everyone left.”
Ms Gandhi even told a profoundly depressed patient that it was safe for both of them to take off their masks and hug, noting the growing evidence that vaccines reduce transmission. “I sat with him and looked him in the face,” she recalled. “It meant a lot to him.”
A few days ago, she treated herself to another restorative experience. “I got the longest haircut. The hair stylist did all sorts of things that took awhile, and I felt great about it,” she said, adding that her hair had suffered “from months of neglect.”
Ms Gandhi continues to grocery shop in person, wearing a mask and physically distancing. She also plans to schedule an appointment with her dentist.
She said she feels lucky that her parents have been vaccinated, as have her brother and sister, who are also health-care professionals. She hasn’t planned a trip to see unvaccinated relatives or friends yet, but the increasing data suggesting vaccines reduce transmission “is making me feel comfortable about this.”
Jeanne Marrazzo, infectious-diseases expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine
Ms Marrazzo said it took “awhile” for the impact of her vaccination to sink in. “My habits this past year have become pretty ingrained,” she said. She wanted to let the pace of immunisations ramp up so as many people as possible could be protected as well.
As a self-described “die-hard foodie,” she used to regard going out to eat and hosting dinner parties as fundamental to enjoying life. But she said she is still uncomfortable dining with unmasked people in a closed space without knowing their vaccination status. “I’m not sure when and if this will change,” she said.
As for bars, they are definitely out. “Forget it,” she said. Too many people losing their inhibitions in a crowded space, increasing the risk for transmission.
But she and her partner recently invited over vaccinated friends and their two young children, 4 and 6, for a veggie chilli dinner. The children “ran around and played with our new pandemic puppy, and it felt so much like old times, we all felt giddy and stayed up late.”
Ms Marrazzo and her partner had cooked for a few others inside their work and neighbour bubble of about six to eight people, she said. But this get-together felt different.
“Like a real beginning,” she said. “I think we’ve been greatly underplaying the chronic, gnawing anxiety we’ve had to keep at bay to function. And that night, it just seemed like it had been banished from the room. It was just really joyous and freeing - even recognising that we are anxious [infectious-diseases] physicians who worry about mutations!”
Ms Marrazzo has continued to go grocery shopping wearing a mask and social distancing throughout the pandemic. And she started returning to hair salons late last spring because she “couldn’t stand it anymore.” Data about mask use in hair salons has been “reassuring,” she said, referring to a CDC report that found mask-wearing might have prevented nearly 140 people from getting infected at a Missouri hair salon.
She hasn’t had time to schedule dental appointments or routine medical screenings, but thinks those settings are safe.
And she recently finalised plans, as part of a group of 16 people, for a June trip to the Galápagos Islands that was canceled last year. All on board will be immunised and get tested twice before sailing, she said.It will be her first flight since a year ago, almost to the day.
Stephen B. Thomas, professor of health policy and management, University of Maryland School of Public Health
Mr Thomas and his wife haven’t seen their son, 37, in more than a year. Now that the couple are vaccinated, they are planning a reunion in the Poconos, a rough halfway point between College Park, Maryland, where the Thomases live, and Boston, where he lives.
But the trip is being guided by what he describes as “Covid calculus.”
Mr Thomas rented an Airbnb with a rigorous cleaning protocol, strong Internet access and a full kitchen. They are bringing food for home-cooked meals: beef stew, chili, spaghetti and meatballs. Mr Thomas figures they can make the four-hour drive to the rental place on a full tank of gas. No stopping.“We won’t drink a whole lot of water,” he said.
The couple had never used online grocery services before, but discovered they love it. And they are not going back to in-person shopping, he said, because he doesn’t want to increase his exposure, even if he is wearing a mask.
But he and his wife have scheduled routine health-care appointments. She has made an appointment for cataract surgery, and he has scheduled a colonoscopy and hopes to do the same for a dental visit. The dentist, he said, has closed the waiting room and requires patients to sit in their vehicles until their appointments.
The one place Mr Thomas won’t be visiting yet is the barber shop, where he used to go regularly for hair cuts and shaves, as a protest of inequitable vaccination rates.
Black people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but vaccination rates for b acks have lagged far behind those of white people, he said.
“My hair is just wild, and I got a beard I never had before,” Mr Thomas said. “For me, I told myself I would not get a haircut or shave until black people got vaccinated. It reminds me of the unusual times we’re in.”
Andrew T. Pavia, professor of paediatrics and infectious diseases, University of Utah
Mr Pavia is fully vaccinated and his wife, who teaches at the University of Utah’s business school, is about to get her second shot. To celebrate, he said, the couple are planning their first potluck dinner with two other couples, who will all be vaccinated in the next two weeks.
“We’re excited about that,” Mr Pavia said. “Until now, we’ve always gotten together outdoors, and doing that in Utah in the winter means lot of layers of down.”
They’re also eagerly awaiting a reunion with their daughter for the first time in more than a year. She is a physician like her father, and also vaccinated. She’s flying to Salt Lake City from Cincinnati, but the Delta Air Lines flight is only two hours, and the middle seats are being left empty, he said. Even for the vaccinated, there are some risks associated with travel because they maybe able to get asymptomatic infection and transmit that to others. But she is young, vaccinated and otherwise healthy, Mr Pavia said, and faces a low risk.
The couple have been grocery shopping in person, patronising stores during less busy times, and only shopping at places where people wear masks reliably, he said. Mr Pavia said he hasn’t had a real haircut in a year “and it shows.” But as soon as his wife is vaccinated, he will get one. He also plans to schedule a dentist appointment.
At Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, where Mr Pavia is director of hospital epidemiology, his team is 100 percent vaccinated, but not everyone else is. Mr Pavia’s team continues to wear masks and eye protection, and takes the same precautions with patients.
He said he would not be comfortable going to an indoor arena, but he might consider going to a baseball game because it’s outdoors.
When Salt Lake City permits indoor dining again, Mr Pavia said he looks forward to visiting a favourite Italian restaurant in the neighbourhood and ordering its signature veal shanks, or osso buco.
The couple also hope to travel to Alaska this summer. “But that is contingent on travel restrictions easing,” he said. If vaccinations stall and cases start climbing again as states lift public health precautions, “things could really go sideways.”
Patricia A. Stinchfield, a paediatric nurse practitioner in infectious diseases at Children’s Minnesota
On a record-setting warm day in Minneapolis recently, Ms Stinchfield, her husband and two other vaccinated couples met at an outdoor brewery for drinks and dinner. Normally, she is at her computer almost daily from 6am to 11pm, overseeing vaccination efforts at her hospital.
This was her first time eating in a restaurant in over a year.
“It was really liberating, it was joyful,” she recalled. “I have missed this so much. You just realise the void that we have been living in. We laughed till we cried.”
It was warm enough - low 60s - to sit outside. No one else was within six feet. People in the group wore masks - double masks - when they weren’t eating or drinking.
Ms Stinchfield’s husband does the grocery shopping wearing a mask, but she said she would feel comfortable going to the store, hair salon and dentist. She just hasn’t had time to make those appointments.
She is also going to wait before getting on a plane. “Personally, I am not concerned inside the airplane,” she said. “The air exchange is good, and surfaces can be cleaned. What worries her are the bus rides between the parking lot and the airport, the queues of people waiting to board, and the restaurants full of people.
“I don’t feel ready,” she said, adding that she would attend a conference virtually.
“We’re at a really pivotal point in the pandemic, with a need for speed [in vaccinations] because these variants are going faster than we are,” she said. She hopes Americans can “just hang on” and maintain public health precautions to prevent spread and allow vaccinations to ramp up. Then, in the next 30 to 60 days, “if we can bring cases back down to as close to zero as possible, I would feel better.”
The Washington Post
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