The social isolation designed to keep people safe during the pandemic is starting to ease. Federal health guidelines issued Monday are not a widespread return to normal, but they do allow fully vaccinated people to do things they’ve missed out on — without wearing a mask.
“I’m excited because it’s a step forward,” said Nan Youngerman, of Madison. Just hours after the new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she had heard from a pair of friends planning a dinner in their home for “much desired socializing.”
She and her husband Jim also hope to see two of their grandchildren, ages 5 and 2, whom they haven’t seen since the pandemic started. They live in New Jersey.
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“Bless their hearts. They seem to remember us. The 2-and-a-half-year-old, it’s almost half his life he hasn’t seen us,” said Nan. The two, in their 70s, have each received two shots of Moderna vaccine.
Under new guidance from the Biden administration, people who are fully vaccinated can get together indoors without wearing face coverings.
The advice applies to private settings, like people’s homes, not out in public at places like restaurants.
Dr. Jeff Pothof, chief quality officer for UW Health, says it’s a positive development, but it won’t have widespread impact yet because of how few people are vaccinated across the country.
“That light at the end of the tunnel got a little bit brighter,” he said. “For those people fully vaccinated, being able to gather at a private residence in a small group and not have to think about masking, not have to think about social distancing — that’s exciting for all of us who can’t wait for our day to come where we can do that.”
As eager as she is to socialize, Nan is still concerned about seeing others without taking precautions. She fears she or Jim might unwittingly contract the virus and pass it along to their daughter and her family who are also in Madison. She, her husband and their two young boys have been part of the couple’s pandemic pod in Madison.
The new guidance says fully immunized Americans can visit with low-risk individuals from other households, without masks, even if those individuals haven’t yet received a vaccine against COVID-19.
Those who may have been exposed to the disease also don’t have to quarantine if they are vaccinated.
But don’t ditch the mask just yet, public health officials say.
“Masking is still one of the most important things we can do to prevent illness,” said Janel Heinrich, director for Public Health Madison & Dane County, which recently issued a new public health order which takes effect Wednesday.
Heinrich says county restrictions have been eased but remain in effect because there’s still a high level of COVID-19 in the community.
In Dane County, 12.6 percent of people are fully vaccinated, Heinrich said. Statewide, that number is just over 10 percent.
The impact federal health recommendations will have on people’s activity isn’t clear. More permissive activity is likely to be more accepted than restrictions. Restrictions at the state and local levels have been met with resistance; however, there are signs people are willing to change their behavior depending on the circumstances. One indication is the decline in daily COVID-19 cases following a huge surge in mid-November, Heinrich and other health officials say.
Monday’s announcement of new guidelines comes as the CDC administered a record number of vaccine doses over the weekend.
But Heinrich says the pace of vaccination isn’t what’s driving the new recommendations, but rather a better understanding of the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.
However, the nation and states around the country are far from reaching herd immunity which requires between 70-85 percent of the population to be protected against the disease to slow or stop its spread.
Last month, Gov. Tony Evers issued a new statewide mask order an hour after the Republican-controlled Legislature voted to repeal his previous mandate, saying he didn’t have authority to make such a decree.
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