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, anonymous asks:
Navigating our semi-vaccinated world is full of tough questions like this one. Luckily, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidance that may help.
According to the CDC, fully vaccinated people can visit indoors and unmasked with low-risk unvaccinated people from a single household. Recent research suggests getting both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines provides about 90% protection against COVID-19 infections. That means a person fully vaccinated with these shots has a pretty slim chance of infecting an unvaccinated person, or vice versa.
But it’s important to read the fine print there. Since no vaccine is 100% perfect, you should only visit with low-risk unvaccinated people—i.e., those who do not have medical conditions or other factors that would increase their chances of having a severe case of COVID-19 if they somehow did get infected. And you should only visit with one household of unvaccinated people at a time; your vaccination status wouldn’t make it any safer for a bunch of unvaccinated people to spend time together inside and unmasked.
Let’s assume the family members who want to visit meet both of those standards. Great! But there’s still the question of travel. Right now, the CDC does not recommend non-essential travel for unvaccinated people.
Even though airplanes have pretty good filtration systems, travelers encounter lots of other people in fairly tight quarters during the average trip, says Cindy Prins, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida. Each of those interactions raises the chances of COVID-19 exposure. Plus, if your family members were unknowingly infected while traveling, or got infected during the trip, they could potentially seed new cases in your area.
Since you and your husband are vaccinated, could you two travel to visit your family instead? That’s a simple question with a complicated answer.
Flying would certainly be safer for you and your husband than for your unvaccinated family. Earlier this month, the CDC said fully vaccinated people can travel “at low risk to themselves,” and do not need to quarantine or get a negative test before or after a domestic flight.
The agency did not, however, give its full stamp of approval for leisure travel. “While we believe fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk to themselves, CDC is not recommending travel at this time due to rising number of cases,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during an April 2 press briefing.
That advice may seem contradictory, but the key thing here is balancing individual and collective risk. COVID-19 is still spreading at concerning rates in this country, and the majority of people in the U.S. are not fully vaccinated. Maintaining pandemic precautions until most people are vaccinated and case counts drop will help keep everyone safe.
So, would you and your husband be fine if you flew to see your family? There’s no guarantee, but the science suggests you probably would be. If you do fly, try to avoid crowds in the airport and wear your mask during the whole flight, Prins says. Recent CDC modeling research also concluded that spacing out airplane passengers can help cut down on exposure to the virus—so if you can sit in an otherwise empty row, all the better.
But with all that said, might it be better to wait until more of the U.S. population is vaccinated and case counts are lower? Again, probably yes.
“Look at what’s going on in your community and in [your family’s] community,” Prins suggests. “Is it a high risk level? Are there a lot of cases? If that’s true, wait until more people get vaccinated and we start to see these case loads come down.”