The number of Albertans fully immunized against COVID-19 is growing. Now what?

Albertans who are fully immunized against COVID-19 still need to observe all the existing public health measures in place to prevent the spread of the virus, health officials say.

Alberta public health measures still apply to fully immunized people

Alberta has administered more than 300,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine. (Grant Linton/CBC)

Albertans who are fully immunized against COVID-19 still need to observe all the existing public health measures in place to prevent the spread of the virus, health officials say

So far, 308,962 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the province and 91,259 Albertans have been fully immunized with two doses. 

More and more Albertans will become fully immunized in the weeks and months ahead. Here are the answers to questions people may have as it becomes increasingly tempting to throw caution (and masks) to the wind: 

Q: I just walked out of the vaccine clinic after getting my first shot, am I good to go?

A: No.

While the various vaccines approved by Health Canada are highly effective at preventing severe illness and death, as well as largely good at preventing immunized people from catching COVID-19, Alberta Health is asking people to keep wearing masks, follow physical distancing and continue to practise handwashing. 

Officials have explained it takes about two weeks after getting the second shot of COVID-19 vaccine (or after one dose, in the case of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine) to be fully vaccinated.

"We know that your immunity will continue to increase out from your second shot," said Dr. Raj Bhardwaj, a Calgary family physician, urgent care doctor and CBC Radio medical contributor.

"And that second shot is really, really important in a two-shot vaccine because that's what gives you much longer lasting immunity, and way stronger immunity."

Bhardwaj added that people shouldn't be alarmed if they feel a bit crummy after getting the vaccine, particularly the second dose.

"That's a good thing — that means your immune system is kicking in," he said.

Q: It's been two weeks since I got my second dose of Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca or my single dose of Johnson & Johnson. Can I stop social distancing?

A: Nope. But congratulations on being fully immunized! 

Health officials don't want you to ditch your mask or start rubbing shoulders with others just yet. That's because while the vaccines are all good at preventing illness caused by COVID-19 none are 100 per cent effective. And research has yet to determine how likely it is that an immunized person can still transmit COVID-19 to someone else.

Bhardwaj said that there are early signals in some research that people who have received the vaccine but still get COVID-19 are likely less contagious, but it's not settled.

"We just don't know yet. We'll probably know more within the next month or two," he said.

In the meantime, fully immunized people are still required to follow all existing public health measures. 

Q: I heard the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) in the United States says fully immunized adults can hang out together indoors with no masks. Can I do that?

A: No. 

The CDC announced Tuesday that fully immunized people can have indoor visits with other fully immunized people without wearing masks or physically distancing. It also said fully immunized people can visit unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 without masks or distancing, and that fully immunized people can refrain from quarantine and testing following a known exposure if asymptomatic. But the rules remain in place for public settings and large gatherings aren't permitted.

It's not a ticket to do whatever you want — and even fully immunized people need to isolate and get tested if they develop any symptoms of COVID-19. 

Provincial public health restrictions remain in place for people who are fully immunized. (David Bajer/CBC)

When asked if Alberta is considering adopting similar recommendations as the CDC's for immunized people, Alberta Health spokesperson Sherene Khaw said available evidence is actively being reviewed, and that the province knows how tough the restrictions have been on people and how eager folks are to be able to gather with loved ones.

"However, we need to better understand the effectiveness of the vaccines in preventing transmission, including variant transmission, before we can safely alter policies," Khaw said in an email. "This evidence is still emerging and so we are being cautious, especially recognizing that, for instance, continuing care residents are most at risk of death and other severe outcomes."

Bhardwaj said the United States is ahead of Canada in administering vaccine, and the earlier approval of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine down south means a growing mass of Americans are finding themselves fully immunized.  

"Because of that, I think the CDC needed to get the word out about 'ok, what are fully immunized people allowed to do?" he said.

Q: Would two sets of rules — one for immunized people and one for non-immunized people — create chaos? 

A: It's a tricky situation.

"When people see some people looking like they're breaking the rules, then they're going to start sliding on their own sticking to the rules,"  Bhardwaj said.

That's why the CDC has said that in public, whether immunized or not, the public health restrictions have to remain in place, Bhardwaj said. He suspects that if Alberta adopts similar rules down the road, these are things that will have to be considered.

"Just because you're fully immunized doesn't mean you walk into the grocery store with no mask on, partly because that would cause chaos . . . and partly because there's no way to tell if a person is fully immunized or not," he said. 

Q: When will the restrictions end, or at least lighten up?

A: It's hard to know, and Bhardwaj said the province is likely weighing a number of variables as it figures this out, such as getting enough people fully immunized to start to make a shift. Other variables are how many active cases of COVID-19 there are in province, and how widespread variant strains of coronavirus become. 

"If the variant cases really start to take off as they appear to be doing, then we might need to continue with the distancing and masking and other things we know work to control the variant cases," he said. 

But he said hopefully the restrictions could be eased by the end of the summer or earlier.

Bhardwaj said this is fully speculative, but he wonders if over the next few months there will be a stepped easing of restrictions for people once they have one shot, then two.

And while the doctor said Alberta and Canada are "so close" to getting COVID-19 under control, it's important to keep in mind that the race isn't over until every country in the world is able to do the same. 

"The best thing we can do now is work hard and fast to get every Albertan vaccinated, and in the meantime continue to work hard to keep numbers down so that we don't lose more people to illness and death to COVID in the meantime," he said.