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You might be tempted to factor vaccination rates into your safety equation too, but Whitney Robinson, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, told me that those numbers shouldn’t be anyone’s main safety indicator. That’s because vaccine distribution so far has been concentrated in particular social networks (for instance, health-care workers) and demographic groups (notably the white and wealthy), so an entire community won’t necessarily reap the benefits that a local vaccination rate of 15, or even 50, percent might imply.
Knowing the overall risk of infection in your area is at least a first step toward making better decisions about whether you should host that birthday party or take Grandpa out to lunch. Even for people who are vaccinated, all of the public-health experts I spoke with emphasized, it’s still important to not throw caution to the wind. If vaccinated people flock to indoor restaurants or go unmasked in a crowd, they’re not just risking infecting others if they can indeed spread the virus, Popescu said. They’re contributing to a sense that life as we knew it before March 2020 is back, despite the fact that more than 65,000 people are still contracting the virus each day. Simply returning to our old habits would be deadly.
That doesn’t mean that any loosening up is off the table for the vaccinated. Far from it—plenty of public-health experts have argued that vaccinated people safely seeing relatives or returning to the office can benefit everyone, because seeing how much the shot improves life will persuade more people to take it. Downplaying the vaccines’ success could discourage people from getting them, because if it won’t change their lives, they have no incentive.
The best way forward for us all is for vaccinated people to spend their extra risk points in ways that don’t put unvaccinated people in danger. As you consider whether you should do things that you wouldn’t have done before the vaccine, think creatively about how you can make those things safer for everyone involved. “Grandparents really want to be able to go hug their grandchildren,” Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. “I don’t have a problem with that.” But consider asking Grandma and Grandpa to wear masks during that hug, or meet you outside, or avoid sleeping over. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve developed an arsenal of strategies to make particular settings and activities safer. The vaccine is an extra-strong weapon against transmission that some people can deploy, but that doesn’t mean they need to discard all of the other ones to use it.
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How many of those methods you choose should depend on how many vulnerable people you regularly come into contact with. A vaccinated oncologist who lives with her immunocompromised sister is going to behave differently from a vaccinated retiree who lives alone. That said, there are plenty of settings, such as restaurants and stores, where you don’t know or can’t control how many vulnerable people are around you. For that reason, small private gatherings where you can adjust your anti-spread tactics to accommodate everyone’s risk factors are a safer first step toward normalcy than activities such as concerts, indoor dining, or big weddings. Travel in small groups might be a nearer goal, too: Popescu said she hopes that by the end of the year, she can take a vacation in another state with her husband without worrying that she’s “being a bad steward of public health.”