In January, two weeks after the second dose of my Pfizer vaccine, I went to a restaurant in the D.C. suburbs to eat a dosa, indoors. The crispy lentil pancake stuffed with potatoes and served with a side of chutney is what I had been dreaming of all through the pandemic. It may not have been the best dosa I had ever eaten, but it was close. The restaurant’s tables were at least 10 feet apart, and the contact with waitstaff was minimal. Ordering and payment were both done through my cellphone, and no one even showed us to our table. For a first venture back into pre-pandemic life, it was perfect.
Since then, I’ve been treating my inoculation as a ticket back to some normal activities. Post-vaccination life for me has involved some dosas and even small gatherings with friends. I almost feel it is my duty as a doctor to demonstrate that getting the vaccine means that some things can change. But with much of the country still unvaccinated, and epidemiologists warning that we are entering a fourth surge, I still find myself masking, keeping my distance, and, as I’ve been doing throughout the pandemic, making decisions about what risks to take. Sometimes these are careful calculations, and sometimes, to be honest, they’re based on my gut sense as a medical professional of what is worth it. There will come a time, hopefully not too far from now, when most of America is vaccinated and cases are low, but for now, the vaccinated among us are navigating an in-between world. I’ve been doing it for three months now—here’s how I’ve been thinking about it.
In a way, that first dosa was one of the easier calls I’ve had to make: My husband and our nanny (who is a nursing student) were both vaccinated around the same time I was. We didn’t have the ability to quarantine, due to our jobs, so we didn’t have a COVID bubble of people we socialized with inside pre-vaccine. There were no adults in my home whom I could be putting at risk by going out to eat. So I felt confident I was an unlikely danger to others, even before we had data showing that my Pfizer inoculation would prevent me from getting and then spreading an asymptomatic coronavirus infection. At work, I continued to mask and keep my distance from patients when possible so the chance of passing the virus to them was low. As for the waitstaff, I reasoned that it’s better for them to have a vaccinated customer than an unvaccinated one. When I entered the restaurant, I found myself wanting to reassure them that I was vaccinated the moment they walked up to the table, but I couldn’t think of an easy way to do that.
A couple of weeks later, after much discussion between my husband and the hosts, I went to a dinner party with friends that had fewer than 10 people, the state limit in Virginia at the time for gatherings. (There are not yet specific guidelines for more expansive gatherings for vaccinated people.) This was prior to the CDC advising that it’s OK to socialize with other vaccinated people, but we’d assumed it was coming. I thought I’d be anxious, but it was relaxing to talk and laugh over food and wine. Our hosts made each couple their own plate of appetizers and there was plenty of hand sanitizer, but it still felt like a nice throwback to the time before. There were many times in the evening we neither talked of nor remembered COVID—which, for a group of medical professionals, let alone anyone in this pandemic, was quite a feat! Later that night, I woke up in a panic—not about getting COVID, but over the thought that I might get a different virus. It’s been so long since I was sick with anything at all.
Since then, I’ve done more socializing with other people who are fully vaccinated. I have had a few in-person meetings over coffee and drinks with work colleagues. It’s so much easier to get things done when talking in person and relying on facial expressions and not just words. We held off on seeing my parents until they were both vaccinated too, which was a straightforward decision, as adults over 65 are at high risk for COVID. Even if there were only a very small risk of them getting COVID from us, we wouldn’t want to take it. But my choices are not purely based on official recommendations: I have not socialized indoors with unvaccinated adults of any age, even though the CDC now says mixing with unvaccinated people from a single household is OK if they are low-risk for COVID-19 complications. It feels wrong to expect the other parties to take on a risk of getting the virus from me, however small it may be (the vaccines are extremely good, not perfect). It also just feels unnecessary. We have been socializing distantly with our unvaccinated neighbors for a year in our backyards, and we see no reason to take it indoors as the weather warms—it’s also just easier to watch the kids if we’re all outside.
We’ve debated how to handle the kids. Since a children’s vaccine is not quite ready yet, my husband and I have struggled with how to make decisions about what kinds of exposure to open up our kids to. We often have to go with gut feelings here, not data. While kids tend to be low-risk for negative outcomes overall from COVID, it’s still possible for them to spread it amongst one another, and then to unvaccinated adults. I didn’t want to feel like I’m being careless, so we end up compromising. We recently had vaccinated friends from out of town visit for the day. The adults hung out unmasked indoors. The children kept their masks on indoors and ate lunch on the porch. This seemed to be of equivalent risk to in-person school, which my kids have been attending for several weeks now. (We have let the kids hug their vaccinated grandparents—it’s just important enough that it feels worth it).
There are many ways I’ve been staying just as careful after my vaccination as I’d been before. I’ve kept masking in places like the grocery store. It’s required by my state’s mask mandate. But from a health perspective, it’s also just the right thing to do and will be for a while. In the absence of vaccine passports, everyone around you should be assumed unvaccinated and at high risk unless you have information otherwise, just as for the past year we have had to assume everyone to be COVID-positive unless proved otherwise. As for venturing into other indoor shared spaces: I hate going to the gym, so not being able to was actually kind of nice, but if I enjoyed it I would probably do that as long as I could be distanced from others. I would also consider going to see a movie if I didn’t have to sit next to a stranger—but not a football game with thousands of unmasked spectators.
I’m currently finishing up this piece at a ski resort with my family. This trip, which involved a plane ride, isn’t so different from one we took pre-vaccine. Both involved outdoor activities only. The hotel felt weird before but feels OK now—even if practically speaking we aren’t doing anything different, that feeling is nice. Masking is mandatory in the ski lift lines, although you can take masks off to ski. We haven’t been hitting the bar après ski because a packed bar with a large group feels a lot riskier than a restaurant with distanced tables (and, well, because we have children). We didn’t put the kids in ski school like we normally would, thinking that even outdoors, having them mingle and ride the lift with kids from all over the world might not be the safest thing during a pandemic. My feeling about travel has been that I’ll do things I would feel comfortable doing at home. The vaccine didn’t play a huge role in our decision to make this trip, since we had traveled before, but when our kids are vaccinated we will be planning more travel, with more indoor activities. I’m hopeful that at least the older one will be vaccinated by the end of the summer, when data on vaccines in the 12- to 16-year-old age group is available.
More than anything big and exciting, though, being vaccinated has restored the tiny bits of normalcy that I didn’t even know I’d missed. I’m not a hugger—in fact, one of the silver linings of the pandemic for me was avoiding all that physical contact with people. However, I recently got to hug a friend whom I hadn’t seen in over a year. I realized that I’d been telling myself I could live without all these little things—hugs, socializing over food, seeing people’s facial expressions—but now I find myself more glad than I thought possible that they’re coming back.