Welcome to COVID Questions, TIME’s advice column. We’re trying to make living through the pandemic a little easier, with expert-backed answers to your toughest coronavirus-related dilemmas. While we can’t and don’t offer medical advice—those questions should go to your doctor—we hope this column will help you sort through this stressful and confusing time. Got a question? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, Josh in Washington asks:
You’re asking the million-dollar question! As more people get their shots—about 18% of Americans have received at least one as of March 8—a lot of people are wondering how to navigate a semi-vaccinated world.
It’s hard to answer your question with certainty, because scientists still don’t know exactly how well COVID-19 shots prevent vaccinated people from spreading the virus to unvaccinated people. We do know that the shots are highly effective at preventing people from getting sick or dying from COVID-19. Researchers are also growing increasingly confident that vaccination dramatically lowers someone’s chances of infecting others—but they’re still figuring out exactly how well the shots block transmission, which is why we’ve all been told to continue wearing masks in public, even after vaccination.
With that said—and with the caveat that “nothing in life is 100%” guaranteed—you probably don’t have a ton to worry about, says Dr. Philip Landrigan, an epidemiologist and director of the Global Public Health Program at Boston College. “If somebody is vaccinated and the vaccine takes, which happens in approximately 95% of cases,” it’s safe to assume they are much less likely to infect you than they were pre-vaccination, Landrigan says. And with four out of five family members vaccinated, Landrigan says your household is pretty safe.
Indeed, in new guidance issued on March 8, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fully vaccinated people can safely gather in their home with a small group of other fully vaccinated people—and can also visit a limited number of unvaccinated people. As an example, the CDC says a fully vaccinated person could pretty safely visit a few unvaccinated relatives who live together, assuming none of them have risk factors for severe disease. Under those guidelines, your situation is in the clear.
But again, there is no way to say with 100% certainty that no one will get sick. If you want to be cautious, Landrigan says you and your relatives could wear masks around the house and keep your distance from each other until you’re also vaccinated.
And as always, your specific circumstances matter. Do any of your family members work in particularly high-exposure environments, like health care? Have any of them developed COVID-19 symptoms? Do you have an underlying health condition that puts you at risk for severe disease, or do you regularly come into contact with anyone who does?
Parsing through these questions may help you decide whether you have good reason to be a little extra cautious. But if the answers to those questions don’t raise any red flags, you can probably assume with a reasonable degree of confidence that you won’t catch the virus from anyone in your household.
Just remember that most families aren’t yet as protected as yours. When you spend time in public places, or with people outside your household, you should continue taking the same precautions you have for the past year.