You’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19: What’s next?

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s highly anticipated release of their guidelines for people fully vaccinated against the coronavirus has many wondering: What does this mean for Hoosiers?

News 8 spoke with Dr. Christopher Doehring, vice president of medical affairs at Franciscan Health, who says while we’re not in the clear just yet, there is reason to be optimistic about the weeks and months ahead. 

Gillis: The CDC released its guidelines for what people who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus can now do. What restrictions have been lifted and are you surprised by them?

Doehring: This is great news and certainly something we had hoped would be the case. I don’t think it’s going quite as far as some people had hoped, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Basically, the key take-homes are: If you’ve been fully vaccinated — remember that’s two weeks after the second dose of either Pfizer or Moderna or now the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — you’ll be able to be around others who’ve been vaccinated without having to worry about wearing a mask. So, that’s really great. You can then go visit loved ones and family members whether they are vaccinated or not and you don’t have to worry about being masked in that setting. So two baby steps in the right direction, but I think it’s exactly what we were hoping to see for people who are protected. The third major thing we’ve been hearing about now is that if you are fully vaccinated and you have a close contact or exposure you don’t have to quarantine like unvaccinated people who are supposed to at this point. 

Gillis: I want to circle back to something you just said. Fully vaccinated means only if you’ve waited two weeks after your second dose or two weeks after that one Johnson & Johnson dose. I think it’s really important we remember that. 

Doehring: Yes. That’s right. It does take two weeks to get maximum protection and in order to be confident in some of these changes, you need to make sure you’ve allowed that full time for your own immunity to set in.

Gillis: And what are the things that the CDC says should remain the same?

Doehring: In general, try to avoid being in big groups. You just don’t know who’s vaccinated and who isn’t or who is a symptomatic carrier or who is an asymptomatic carrier. So, continuing to mask out in the general public or when you’re around other groups of people that you don’t know or aren’t in your own family unit.

And then there are still some guidelines about travel. Minimizing the risk of either getting COVID-19 or spreading it. We just don’t know everything there is to know yet about how well protected we are when we have been vaccinated, how low we’ve reduced the likelihood that we could be a spreader. So, until we have those answers there are still going to be a number of basic recommendations in place for mitigating the spread of the virus. 

Gillis: Considering there are still a lot of unknowns, do you think the CDC guidelines are too loose or too restrictive? Where do you fall on the spectrum?

Doehring: With people being vaccinated, I think it certainly comes with some benefits. The fact that we are seeing these official recommendations from the CDC does give people more incentive and motivation to be vaccinated. So, from that standpoint, again, it’s a step in the right direction and certainly we hope as we achieve more and more people getting vaccinated and getting to that herd immunity that will allow us to loosen up much more in the weeks and months ahead. 

Gillis: You mentioned herd immunity. I read something just now about herd immunity and there is a scientist saying we may never reach herd immunity and this could turn from a pandemic into and endemic. Any thoughts on that?

Doehring: There are statistical analyses that would tell you when we would be achieving herd immunity and functionally have that widespread community protection, but there might always be a low-level spread of the virus particularly when you are dealing with variants and variable levels of immune response to the vaccine. There will always be some people who can’t get vaccinated for one reason or another. There will be some level of vulnerability there. But by and large I think the expectation is the community spread will continue to drop as the vaccine rates go up. If it’s not official it will look a lot like herd immunity by some time this summer. 

Gillis: Let’s hope so. You just mentioned variants. Last week all five variants were discovered in Houston–the California, New York, Brazilian, South African and U.K. mutations. So, we don’t really know exactly how the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines respond to these variants and now that they are doing testing–they are injecting the coronavirus variants into the antibodies of people who have gotten these vaccines. So, given that there is still so much unknown about these variants and now with the CDC we’re lifting things…what are your thoughts on that? These variants are still so mysterious. 

Doehring: There are a couple of things there. The variants do seem to be a little bit more contagious and so that may require higher rates of vaccination and/or immune protection from a prior COVID-19 infection to achieve herd immunity. So, it does drive that level to what you need to achieve that. The other side of this is we are starting to learn how protective the vaccines are against these variants and for the most part it’s been encouraging news. There is still a lot to learn. We really don’t know how much more lethal these variants may or may not be. There are definitely some unknowns out there that we’ll come to learn more about in the weeks and months ahead as well.

But I think it’s also important to keep in mind that there have been different variants all throughout this pandemic. This has not been a single virus that the whole world has been exposed to. These genetic variations have occurred from the very beginning. It’s just now there are implications for the vaccine and for the spread and for how well protected people are that already had COVID-19. Are they now more vulnerable to a variant? So, it does give us some pause and focuses us to remain vigilant in our efforts, but it also serves as motivation to get everyone vaccinated as soon as possible. 

Gillis: That’s a really great point. What would you say to the people who have not been vaccinated? They haven’t had their turn. They are in line and almost there. It must be frustrating for them to see other people doing what they still can’t. Should we be concerned about people relaxing on the masking or maybe not following the guidelines as they should? So, your thoughts on people who really want to engage and participate in the things that people who are vaccinated can.

Doehring: I think the vaccine is such an important thing now that it’s available and we have so many options and we’ve given them to over seventy million people. So, we have a huge basis of data now that suggests these are safe vaccines and they are proving to be very very effective. The vaccine is important not only to protect yourself–and at this point it would be a tragedy to get sick when you could’ve been vaccinated and chose not to. It’s one thing for a half-million people to have died from this virus up until this point when it wasn’t really preventable from a vaccine. But going forward this is a vaccine-preventable disease and it would be a huge tragedy for someone to get sick from COVID-19 and die at this point knowing that it could’ve been prevented with a vaccine. 

So, I think especially people who are high risk–and we’re seeing this in huge numbers they are getting protected. But then also to then protect the rest of our society as well. It’s important now more than ever to get that vaccine and establish your protection and then we can re-open and get back to business as usual. 

Gillis: Business as usual. And you’re exactly right. There is no need for someone to succumb to this. We’ve learned so much. We have these vaccines. They’re out there. Last 30 seconds Dr. Doehring. What would you like to tell Hoosiers? 

Doehring: We’ve come so far so fast. The state has done a great job of prioritizing our highest risk populations to get them the vaccine and now that we are lowering those thresholds and we’re getting down into younger populations and targeting others with other risk factors…I just couldn’t be more proud of how things have gone in Indiana and the great work that’s happened in Indiana. The partnerships within our state, our county health departments and the hospitals and health systems to make this go as smoothly as it has and to get as many Hoosiers vaccinated as possible. 

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral research scientist. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over 6 years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets. You can follow her on Facebook @DrMaryGillis and Instagram @reportergillis.