The U.S. government recently announced major progress on COVID-19 vaccinations: More than half of American adults have got at least one dose and over 32 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). All those shots in all those arms are raising the question across the United States, as around the world: After more than a year under pandemic restrictions, to what extent can fully vaccinated people go out into the world and do whatever they used to do?

Leana Wen is an emergency physician, public-health professor at the George Washington University, and former Baltimore health commissioner. In her view, public guidance in the U.S. has been highly uneven on this issue, with CDC officials now at risk of “making themselves irrelevant” on account of their excessively cautious advice. Earlier this month, for example, the CDC’s director, Rochelle Walensky, said that while “fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk to themselves, CDC is not recommending travel at this time due to the rising number of [COVID] cases.” For Wen, recommendations like this defy common sense. “We should really talk about how vaccines are our way back to pre-pandemic normal,” she says, “and that message is not being fully conveyed.”


Graham Vyse: If I’ve gotten my vaccine, and waited two weeks for the full protection to kick in, then what? Am I back to my life before the pandemic?

Leana Wen: I’ll tell you what the CDC’s recommendations are—and why I believe it needs to go a lot further. The CDC says that if you are fully vaccinated—meaning two weeks after both doses of Pfizer or Moderna, or two weeks after a single dose of Johnson & Johnson—you can see other people who are fully vaccinated, essentially without restriction, in private settings. You can have dinner indoors without masks. You can hug other people who are fully vaccinated.

The CDC still says to be careful of medium or large settings, but in theory you could have a dinner party with 10 people, all of whom are fully vaccinated. The CDC is also saying that fully vaccinated people can get together with another household that has unvaccinated people, as long as the unvaccinated members of that other household aren’t at high risk for severe disease themselves. Grandparents who are fully vaccinated should be able to see their grandchildren, but only one household at a time. If there are two different households of unvaccinated children, they shouldn’t be mixing, because they’re a danger to one another. The CDC is also saying that travel is probably pretty safe for people who are fully vaccinated.

I think the CDC should go a lot further. We have plenty of evidence—including real-world studies in the U.S. and other countries—showing that being vaccinated protects you very well from contracting coronavirus and from becoming severely ill yourself; and it also dramatically reduces your risk of being an asymptomatic carrier who could transmit coronavirus to other people.

The CDC is still saying to avoid non-essential travel. That doesn’t pass a common-sense test. If you’re saying that travel is safe—or very safe—for people who are fully vaccinated, why are you telling them to avoid non-essential travel?

There needs to be a lot more done in order to encourage people to be vaccinated, including telling people they can return to much of pre-pandemic normal once they’re fully vaccinated—with some caveats, of course; if it’s somebody who’s older and immunocompromised, perhaps they still want to be cautious for themselves. But for the majority of otherwise healthy adults, they should be able to go back to much of pre-pandemic normal. For example, the CDC is still saying to avoid non-essential travel. That doesn’t pass a common-sense test. If you’re saying that travel is safe, or very safe, for people who are fully vaccinated, why are you telling them to avoid non-essential travel?

Again, there are circumstances under which you may not want to [engage in non-essential travel], including if you are a patient who has an organ transplant and is on heavily immunosuppressants. You shouldn’t be traveling unless you take all kinds of additional precautions. But for otherwise healthy people? Please go and travel. Enjoy the many things we have not been able to enjoy. We should really talk about how vaccines are our way back to pre-pandemic normal, and that message is not being fully conveyed.

The Signal

Vyse: Why do you think public-health officials are being too cautious?

Wen: Look, I understand the CDC is in a tough spot. They don’t want to get the recommendation wrong. They want to use an abundance of caution. But that comes at a very steep price. Public-health guidance has to make sense, because public health depends on public trust. If the guidance doesn’t meet the common-sense test—if it’s so far away from where people are in their thinking—they’re just not going to do it. That public-health authority loses credibility, not only for this issue but for everything else too.

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