You’ve gotten your second COVID-19 vaccination shot. When will your life get back to normal?

Madeline Buckley, Chicago Tribune
·7 min read

Chris Ruys is scheduled to receive her second COVID-19 vaccine shot on March 1 and will be considered fully inoculated about two weeks later.

After that, she wonders: Then what?

Based on advice from doctors, Ruys doesn’t expect her daily life to change immediately. She recently turned down an invitation for a St. Patrick’s Day party, as she worries about the vaccine’s performance against the new variants, as well as spreading the virus to others.

“I think I’ll have to take it a day at a time,” the 75-year-old Streeterville neighborhood resident said.

Medical experts, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are telling people to continue masking and social distancing after they are considered fully inoculated because doctors don’t yet know whether vaccinated people can spread the virus to those who have not had the shot. They also don’t know how well the vaccines ward off the new variants.

Still, there are reasons to be hopeful that life can improve after becoming fully vaccinated. Right now, that means receiving two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and waiting another two weeks. Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine may be available soon following a Friday meeting by the Food and Drug Administration.

People may be able to somewhat increase their activities, particularly with small groups of others who are vaccinated, doctors say. And experts say there are indicators that the vaccine does limit spread to those who are still unvaccinated.

New guidance from the CDC says that people who have received both shots don’t have the quarantine if they were exposed to the virus. And the city of Chicago recently modified its travel order to say that inoculated people don’t have to quarantine when returning from certain states.

“It’s coming. We just have to be patient,” said Dr. Susan Bleasdale, an infectious disease physician at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System.

But with guidelines constantly in flux, area residents are trying to figure out how to approach life post-vaccine — navigating what is OK to do and what still isn’t. And some are still reporting issues obtaining or managing appointments for the second shot.

“There is just so much confusion,” Ruys said.

What do doctors say?

Ron Caneva wants to travel again soon. The 72-year-old Lockport resident will receive his second shot in mid-March. He is still trying to educate himself about guidelines after inoculation, but he knows his travel dreams are probably still far off.

“I don’t think we’re going to go anywhere yet,” he said.

When thinking about post pandemic life, people talk of hugging grandchildren, holidays with family members, travel and other in-person activities.

But as the United States in February reached 500,000 deaths, the need to not let our collective guard down remains crucial, doctors say.

“(The vaccines) are very protective against acquiring symptomatic COVID-19 and exceptionally protective against contracting severe disease,” said Dr. Benjamin Singer, pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Doctors are less certain about transmissibility, he said, though he added that studying countries like Israel, which has vaccinated a sizable portion of its population, shows promise that the vaccine is “pretty good at lessening transmission.”

When the vaccines were in the testing stage, manufacturers were primarily concerned with testing the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness, experts say. But Bleasdale said studies to determine transmissibility are underway, and we might know more in two to three months. And as more people become vaccinated, the concern about transmissibility will lessen.

Regarding the emerging variants, the vaccines on the market now seem to be effective against the UK variant, but may need a third booster to combat other variants, doctors said.

Bleasdale also noted that there are cases where people let their guard down after the first shot, and contracted COVID-19.

So how should people behave?

Because of the variants, Bleasdale warned that travel could still be risky, but she said people might be able to do more than they have in the past year.

“You might be able to at least maybe do some activities you might not have done before you were protected,” she said.

Gathering in a small group with other vaccinated friends or family is probably low risk, as long as people are still keeping their social bubbles small, and those people aren’t seeing others who are high risk, she said.

“You might not want to do one group today, another tomorrow, another the next day,” she said.

And can younger people who are lower risk see their grandparents who have been vaccinated?

In a Facebook Live Q and A with the Chicago Tribune, Dr. Emily Landon, an epidemiologist at the University of Chicago School of Medicine, said it depends.

“The grandkids wearing the mask and grandma wearing her mask, a good mask, can hug briefly outside,” she said. “That’s different than everyone hanging out in a warm, hot kitchen with the windows closed and no ventilation.”

Life post-vaccine

Warren James, a 35-year-old manufacturing worker who goes into work every day, has largely stayed away from restaurants even when the establishments have been allowed to open their doors to customers.

But with one shot down, James thinks he might be able to loosen some of his personal restrictions. He hopes to visit his parents in Florida when they are vaccinated too, and may think about dining out again, while taking the proper precautions.

“Even if it’s technically allowed in the city of Chicago, I haven’t been wanting to do that,” he said.

Michael Molinaro, 67, of Wheaton, is also trying to figure out what his personal comfort level is, once he is inoculated.

Molinaro hasn’t been able to visit his daughter in New York in nearly a year, and he hopes to be able to see her graduate from law school later this year. He believes he will be able to see more friends, while still abiding by social distancing and mask guidelines.

“The isolation has been maddening,” he said.

Both men, though, have struggled with their second appointment.

Providers are balancing complex logistics for making the appointment for the second shot, and the state of Illinois said earlier this month that they will have to start making fewer first dose appointments to accommodate all the upcoming second dose needs.

Molinaro received his first shot at a Walgreens in the Champaign area when he had to travel there for work. They made his second appointment at the same Walgreens, though outside of the recommended time frame, and the pharmacist said he could just go online and change his appointment to a store closer to home.

But Molinaro said it took hours on the phone with customer service, and involved speaking with at least eight people, before his appointment was changed. He received the second shot on Tuesday.

“It was disturbing how difficult it was,” he said.

James received his first shot at a Chicago Walmart, but the pharmacy there told him to make a second dose appointment online rather than scheduling it on site. When James went to the portal, he couldn’t find any available slots, and spent about two weeks trying to secure his second appointment, growing nervous as the days passed. He spoke to customer service reps and the pharmacy, and was told he would receive a call from Walmart to schedule the shot before time runs out.

“I felt like I won the lottery for the first one and now I have to win the lottery for the second one,” he said.

In the Tribune Q and A, Landon said “places that are doing first doses should be giving you scheduling information for the second dose at the same time.”

A Walmart spokeswoman told the Tribune on Monday said the stores “should be scheduling second doses through a manual process when the customer is on site after receiving the first dose.” Walmart is “re-educating” its pharmacies on this and reaching out to patients who were not given a second dose appointment.

On Wednesday, James finally got a call from Walmart to schedule the next appointment. And he feels optimistic about the future.

“I hope that as more people get vaccinated and the numbers on the infections go down, we can all kind of start breathing in a sigh of relief,” he said. “I think we’ll get that sense of security back.”

mabuckley@chicagotribune.com