Americans got their first peek Monday at what life may be like in a post-vaccinated world with new federal guidelines that say people who are fully vaccinated can gather privately indoors without masks and without physical distancing.
The much-anticipated recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, described as a first step toward returning to everyday activities, identify someone as fully vaccinated two weeks after their final shot. The timing of the announcement — just weeks before the beginning of spring — comes as many people are tempted to visit family or interact with friends after months of careful isolation.
Jean and Mike Lynch circled their calendar when they heard the news. On Easter Sunday in early April, the Franklin couple hope to hug some of their grandchildren again in their first up-close and almost normal visit since the pandemic began.
By then, the Lynches will have completed their COVID-19 vaccinations and, under the new guidelines, their maskless visit with family will be considered safe — or as safe as possible in pandemic times.
“The world will open back up,” said Jean Lynch, 71, a retired critical care nurse. “We’re people people, and the last year has been isolating.”
The new guidelines say fully vaccinated people can visit indoors with unvaccinated people from another household without either wearing masks or staying 6 feet apart as long as everyone in the other household is at low risk for severe disease.
Fully vaccinated people can also skip quarantine or COVID-19 testing when they’re exposed to someone potentially infected with the virus unless they show symptoms, under the new rules. Small groups of people who have all gotten their shots, for instance, could gather for dinner privately without masking or other precautions, under the rules.
Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, called the CDC guidance “a very reasonable” approach.
“This really does show us that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We just have to persist through the tunnel.”
Fully vaccinated people should still continue wearing masks and physically distancing in public and while visiting with unvaccinated people who are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID, federal regulators said.
“We know that people want to get vaccinated so they can get back to doing the things they enjoy with the people they love,” CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky, during a news conference Monday.
She cautioned that over 90 percent of Americans are still not vaccinated and urged everyone, vaccinated or not, to avoid large gatherings and unneeded travel. That advice triggered some confusion, as people wondered whether Walensky’s green light for vaccinated grandparents to visit family suggested an OK to travel.
“We would like to give the opportunity for vaccinated grandparents to visit their children and grandchildren who are healthy and who are local,” Walensky said, “but our travel guidance currently is unchanged.”
CDC suggests Americans should avoid travel, but if they must, to get tested one to three days beforehand. Another test is advised three to five days after travel and the CDC suggests people stay home and self-quarantine for a full seven days after their trip, even if their test is negative.
“Every time there is a surge in travel we have a surge in cases in this country,” Walensky said.
Martha Sheridan, president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, said she would have liked to hear new CDC guidance on travel. But for now, she said, she’s hoping Massachusetts follows the lead of neighbors like New York and Vermont by allowing vaccinated people from other states to visit without having to be tested or quarantine.
“I’m not surprised it wasn’t spelled out by CDC just yet on a national level,” Sheridan said. “On a lot of these things, they leave some state discretion, and that’s what may have happened here.”
Sheridan said she’s talked to representatives from that state Housing and Economic Development office and was told the state is considering lifting restrictions on all vaccinated visitors from other states.
Among many parents of school-age children, the new CDC guidelines aren’t likely to change attitudes toward attending gatherings or about sending kids back to school, said Somerville parent Keri Rodrigues, founder of Mass Parents United, an advocacy group.
“In poor Black and Brown families throughout the Commonwealth, many of them don’t trust the CDC and they don’t know enough people who’ve been vaccinated at this point that they’re going to be meeting and congregating and getting more comfortable,” Rodrigues said.
While there is data that suggest people who are vaccinated may still run a small risk of “break through” infections, those cases are likely to be milder and involve lesser amounts of virus. But Walensky said federal regulators are still awaiting clearer data on whether vaccinated people can transmit the virus to others.
Dr. David Hamer, an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center and professor at Boston University School of Medicine, said he’s troubled that so little is known about whether people can become infectious after vaccination. Hamer said he’d favor a more conservative approach to socializing until more data can be collected.
“There’s still some unanswered questions on the potential for someone who’s been vaccinated to be infectious,” he said.
Hamer said people should be especially cautious about socializing with unvaccinated older people or others at higher risk of the virus.
He cited documented cases of people becoming infected with COVID-19 between their first and second shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, though there have been few cases of infection two weeks after the second doses.
Dr. Karen Tashima, director of clinical trials in the Immunology Center at Miriam Hospital in Providence, said the CDC’s lack of guidance on travel is an omission that presumably will be filled in future guidance. For now, people will have to rely on a patchwork of state and national guidelines on who can travel from where and with what restrictions.
But overall, Tashima said, she thought the new guidance makes a lot of sense.
“People have been cooped up for a year now, and they want to know what they can do,” she said. “This is a measured approach. They’re not throwing caution to the wind.”
She also cautioned that the dangers of COVID-19 remain, especially with the spread of more easily transmissible virus variants.
“We’re still waiting for the infection rates to go way down and a lot more people to get vaccinated before we’ll get back to anything like normal,” Tashima said.
For now, Jean and Mike Lynch are eagerly planning visits with grandchildren
They hope to attend one granddaughter’s 6th birthday party on St. Patrick’s Day, but will still wear masks because that will be before their second shots. But by Easter, they hope for a more relaxed and maskless gathering. And in April, they’re planning a trip to Vermont.
“It will be a wonderful reunion,” Jean Lynch said.