Big news for people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19: You don’t necessarily need to quarantine after being exposed to the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Fully vaccinated” means it’s been at least two weeks since you received your second dose of a two-dose vaccine or one dose of a single-dose vaccine. (Note: Only Pfizer’s and Moderna’s respective two-dose vaccines currently authorized for emergency use in the U.S.)
The CDC the announcement in recently updated guidelines about the COVID-19 vaccines. It’s not a blanket get-out-of-quarantine-free card, though—there are some stipulations. Here’s what you need to know.
What are the CDC’s quarantine guidelines for fully vaccinated people?
The updated guidelines specifically say that, “fully vaccinated persons who meet criteria will no longer be required to quarantine following an exposure to someone with COVID-19.”
Per the CDC, people who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 don’t need to quarantine if they meet this criteria:
They’re fully vaccinated (at least two weeks have passed since getting the second dose of a two-dose vaccine or one dose of a single-dose vaccine).
It’s been less than three months since their final dose of the vaccine.
They don’t have symptoms of COVID-19 after the exposure.
Now for the stipulations: The CDC still recommends that people who are patients and residents in healthcare settings (like nursing homes) quarantine after an exposure “due to the unknown vaccine effectiveness in this population, the higher risk of severe disease and death, and challenges with social distancing in healthcare settings.”
Why did the CDC update its guidance?
The updated guidelines are in line with the recommendations given to people who have recently recovered from COVID-19 and have immunity. The CDC acknowledges that the risk of fully vaccinated people transmitting SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is “uncertain,” but it also notes that “vaccination has been demonstrated to prevent symptomatic COVID-19; symptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission is thought to have a greater role in transmission than purely asymptomatic transmission.”
The CDC also cites the “individual and societal benefits of avoiding unnecessary quarantine” which can outweigh the “unknown risk of transmission.” In other words, the evidence seems to support that the benefits of avoiding quarantine outweigh the (small) risk of spreading the virus after vaccination.
Why the three-month timeline?
As of now, the CDC says that fully vaccinated people don’t need to quarantine if it’s been less than three months since their last shot. Why three months? That’s the length of time that was looked at in vaccine trials. “This is what the evidence supports,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“The CDC is confident about the protection you get for three months but is not sure yet beyond that,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “It’s all still under study.”
The CDC hasn’t said yet if the three-month marker will change, but Dr. Adalja is optimistic. “This timeline will probably be extended as more data about the ability of vaccines to prevent infection accumulates,” he says.
Dr. Schaffner agrees. “I do anticipate that this will change over time,” he notes.
That said, Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, notes that it’s “hard to predict, especially with the new variants spreading.” Currently, research suggests that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are still effective against widely circulating strains of SARS-CoV-2, including B.1.1.7 (the British variant) and B.1.351 (the South African variant). “Time will tell—the new variants are the wild card,” Dr. Watkins says.
What to do after COVID-19 exposure if you’re fully vaccinated
If you’re fully vaccinated and meet the criteria to avoid quarantining, you’re OK to do just that. But Dr. Schaffner says it’s still important to continue to follow the known methods of preventing the spread of COVID-19, like wearing a mask when you’re around people from outside your household, social distancing, and practicing good hand hygiene.
It’s also important to listen to your body and to quarantine if you do develop symptoms of COVID-19 (and then touch base with your doctor about next steps). Still, Dr. Adalja says if you’ve been vaccinated, “it’s unlikely you’ll develop symptoms.”
This article is accurate as of press time. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolves and the scientific community’s understanding of the novel coronavirus develops, some of the information may have changed since it was last updated. While we aim to keep all of our stories up to date, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news. Always talk to your doctor for professional medical advice.
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