Post-vaccination Inertia Is Real

Readjusting our ideas about what’s safe is going to take time.

Newton's cradle with vaccine vials
Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Updated at 4:39 p.m. ET on April 29, 2021.

On my kitchen wall hangs a very small and very adorable cat calendar, with May 23 circled in Sharpie. It’s the day my Pfizer vaccine will, at long last, blossom into “full vaccination,” as sanctioned by the CDC. I’ll be able to safely venture outdoors unmasked and skip post-exposure quarantines. I’ll be able to schmooze with other immunized people indoors—perhaps even travel across state lines to visit family members I haven’t hugged since last spring.

In a matter of weeks, social life as I know it will crack open. And a pretty big part of me is flat-out terrified of what lies within that widening maw.

The world is a long way from vaccinating most of the human population. But here in the United States, nearly a third of Americans have gotten the COVID-19 shots they need for full immunity; we have three safe and effective vaccines, and in the coming months, more will join them. With inoculation comes a ballooning list of perks. But after a year underground, many people, myself very much included, are hesitant to shed their solitude and reestablish the norms we so staunchly swore off.

As enthused as I am about immunity and vaccines, I’ve found some degree of comfort in my COVID cave. I have spent months confirming that what occurs within its boundaries is very, very low-risk, and I’m not terribly desperate to crawl back into the sunlight. Part of the reason is that I am, as my colleague Joe Pinsker calls it, Team Couch, and naturally gravitate toward a social life that stays in the slow lane. But I also dread the behavioral baggage packed into that tiny needle prick—a whole new set of calculations to make about risk, without a comprehensive playbook to guide me. As researchers learn more about the coronavirus and the vaccines, the rules of immune existence are changing at breakneck speed, and my emotional valence just can’t keep pace. I will soon be sludged down in a pit of post-vaccination inertia, and I expect to be mired there for weeks.

“You can’t just turn off that anxiety; it’s got to power down,” Kenneth Carter, a psychologist at Emory University, told me. The newly vaccinated have been tasked with reclassifying a whole suite of behaviors that were very recently dangerous, breaking months-long habits that were set and solidified during a time of crisis. “Recalibrating around that is tough,” Carter said. Take, for instance, this week’s headliner switcheroo. Per the CDC, vaccinated people can now, under most circumstances, eschew masks outdoors—a massive flip from a year of calls for near-ubiquitous shielding. Some people have already easily, almost intuitively, made the hop; others have been there for months. But plenty are having trouble toggling their brain from masking modesty to face-exhibiting exuberance.

Carter, like me, is taking things slow. He passed his full-vaccination milestone a few weeks ago. He’s not ready to host friends from out of state, but he has dined outdoors at a restaurant and visited his immunized neighbors—CDC-approved, low-risk activities that were fixtures of his life in the Before Times. Yet adding those behaviors back to his repertoire still felt patently weird. Carter’s brain has intellectually squared his change in circumstance, he said, “but knowing something is safe and feeling safe are very different things”—a sentiment my colleague Amanda Mull captured in the fall.

“We’ve conditioned ourselves to behave in a certain way for the past year,” Jennifer Taber, a health psychologist and risk expert at Kent State University, told me. Much of that training involved shattering and reassembling our intuitions about safety; our pandemic behaviors have become deeply ingrained, going past the point of routine and into the realm of dogma. “I’ve had nightmares or dreams where I’m in a crowded place and I realize I’m not wearing a mask and no one else is wearing a mask. For me, it’s been associated with a lot of anxiety,” Taber said. Unlearning those emotional associations requires making some sharp U-turns; each person’s mileage will vary, and plenty of us should expect to feel some whiplash.

Taber is also fully vaccinated, but she keeps having to remind herself what that means. While planning a visit with friends this week, she found herself worrying about the weather—only to realize that everyone invited was at least two weeks past their final dose, allowing them to mingle indoors. “It hadn’t even occurred to me that we could do this inside,” she said.

Pinballing back to regular hobnobbing might be easier for people whose jobs and responsibilities have kept them in close proximity to others. My partner, a health-care worker, is among them. He never swore off people the same way I did; he was unable to. (My work situation has put me in a great position of privilege.) If anything, he’s interacted with more people than usual this past year, and since his shots, which took hold more than two months ago, he has slipped almost seamlessly back into regular hangouts with his vaccinated friends and co-workers. They want me to join them as soon as I feel ready. I don’t know when that will be.

Experts told me that some of my molasses-y feelings can be traced back to just how much ambiguity we’re all being asked to deal with right now. Vaccinations are up, but so are infection rates in many parts of the country. The virus is still evolving and, on occasion, sprouting new versions of itself that could continue to trouble us. And the post-vaccination guidebook changes on a near-weekly basis, as researchers hustle to learn more about SARS-CoV-2 and the tools we’ve built to fight it. Keeping up with the shifting guidelines can result in, as Taber put it, information overload: tiring at best, and maddeningly confusing at worst. The CDC’s most recent mask recommendation, for instance, is grounded in good evidence, but also sets pandemic norms askew. Maskless people you encounter could now be immunized rule followers or uninoculated defiers.

Rather than trying to keep up, some vaccinated people might decide to maintain their pre-shot baseline until most everyone else is in the clear. “In some ways, it’s easier to just default to ‘Nope, I’m just staying home,’” Kimberly Powers, an epidemiologist at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, told me.

The risk calculus is especially tricky for people in mixed-vaccination households. Most kids can’t yet get their shots; certain people, such as those taking immunosuppressive drugs, might not benefit as strongly from the vaccines. Vaccination is an individual event, but its repercussions affect everyone around us. Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State, told me that she and her partner will be fully vaccinated next week. But her 7-year-old son won’t be eligible for shots anytime soon, so the whole family is calibrating their behavior to accommodate his still-elevated level of risk. “I’ve spent the past year being cautious,” Smith said. “I don’t want to blow all of that up.”

Just months ago, most members of the population stood on roughly equal public-health footing: The same general guidelines applied to just about everyone. Now the rules are splintering. That punts a lot of the work to us, as individuals, to tailor the rules to our particular lives through ad hoc risk-benefit analyses. Allison Chamberlain, a public-health expert at Emory, points out just how much flexibility this requires. The CDC has laid out clear tips on masking and assessing the relative safety of various venues, decisions that each individual has at least some control over. But local circumstances, including ongoing outbreaks and community vaccination rates, are also crucial to consider. Vaccines offer a layer of protection, but aren’t impermeable; the more virus that’s around, the more infection and illness will occur. The experts I spoke with recommended following reports from local health departments, a bit like checking the weather before deciding how to dress for a day outdoors. “It won’t always be the same suite of mitigation measures for every circumstance,” Chamberlain told me.

The goal is to weigh the risk you’re considering against the risk you’re willing to take on—essentially figuring out if the potential boost to your well-being is worth it. That threshold will vary from person to person, and we should make room for that diversity, Taber said. Some people will want to dip their toes into the water more slowly, as Carter put it, and that’s okay.

Inevitably, people’s social expectations will misalign, and we’ll all need to exercise some patience, with ourselves and others, and clearly communicate our ground rules. “Say what you need and what you feel comfortable with,” Carter said. The activities we can safely do after vaccination should not necessarily be seen as the behaviors we should engage in; they are options, not obligations.

That sort of transparency isn’t intuitive for everyone, certainly not me. I have spent months roiling in a data-rich stew of fear and silence. I’m also worried about my own limitations. There is, first off, my lingering COVID-19 concern: I can’t help but worry that, even after I’m fully vaccinated, I’ll make a misstep—that I’ll somehow catch the virus and pass it on to someone else. I’m also worried that, amid all this chaos and isolation, I’ve simply forgotten how to be a social human. Charisma isn’t like riding a bike. And I’m not eager to show off just how far I’ve regressed—how much the pandemic has eroded my ability to engage.

The way to quash that fear is, of course, to flex the mingling muscles that have atrophied, and to remind myself that, as misanthropic as I can be, I do enjoy exercising them from time to time. Instead of yielding to my inertia, I’m reminding myself of the things I miss: hugging my friends. Smelling fresh-baked restaurant bread. Heading to an office that isn’t 30 feet away from my bed. I’m going to start slow, probably with a haircut or an outdoor picnic, then work my way up to the 18,000 weddings I’ve been invited to this fall. I’ll share my vaccination status with the people I want to interact with, and hope they offer me the same courtesy in return. I’ll learn how to say “Thank you, but I’m not ready for that” without the guilt eating me up.

Reacquiring what little social acumen I had before might take some time. But I’m looking forward to the day when I’ll be able to walk down the street without a mask and exchange an awkward smile with a stranger, knowing that the world is safer—that we have the option to interact, even if we’d both rather not.