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Can you return to pre-pandemic life after your first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine? Not so fast, say experts

As Ontario ramps up its immunization efforts, it may be tempting for those vaccinated to return to life in the so-called beforetimes, but medical experts caution a first dose of the vaccine isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card.

'By all means go for a walk, see your next of kin. Just be careful — you still need to keep your distance'

People leave a mass vaccination clinic run by the Scarborough Health Network at Centennial College, in Toronto, on March 19, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

As Ontario ramps up its immunization efforts, it may be tempting for those vaccinated to return to life in the so-called beforetimes, but medical experts caution a first dose of the vaccine isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Dr. Peter Juni, the director of Ontario's COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table, says that while more people are getting the vaccine, there's a bit of a good news, bad news story at play.

The province hasn't offered specific guidance on what those who receive the first of their two-dose vaccines can do, but Juni says mask wearing and physical distancing are still critical. 

"Relative to where the size of the population, there are still very few people who have received the shot," he said.

"So we now have an increasing number of people who have received at least one dose — and the depressing news for those people is not much is changing and that's a challenge."

WATCH | Ontario's lack of messaging about life after a first dose of vaccine:

What happens after you get your COVID-19 vaccine? Many say the messaging is confusing

3 months ago
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OK, so you’ve received your first COVID-19 shot. What are you now allowed or not allowed to do? Those leaving vaccination sites say there is little guidance on that front. Philip Lee-Shanok has the details. 2:19

On Thursday, more than 60,000 shots were administered across Ontario, marking a single-day record. And more age groups are gradually being added to the eligibility list. Starting Monday anyone aged 75 and older can book their COVID-19 vaccine through the province's website.

The number of pharmacies allowed to administer the shot will double to 700, and they will be able to offer the AstraZeneca shot to anyone 60 years and up.

Additionally, 60 doctors' offices are vaccinating patients and another 30 are in the early planning stages.

But some leaving the mass vaccination clinics say they were not given any advice on what activities they can safely engage in.

Those vaccinated at Seneca College, for example, were given a four-page document with just one section advising to "continue to follow the recommendations of local public health officials to prevent the spread of COVID-19."

Dr. Peter Juni, director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table says while more people are getting the vaccine, it's not a get-out-of-jail-free card. (CBC)

U.S. offers specific guidance for those fully vaccinated

On its website, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has guidance for fully-vaccinated people, saying they can safely gather indoors with others who have been vaccinated without masks or distancing — and even visit unvaccinated people from one other household, as long as no one is at high-risk for the virus. 

It also says relaxing some measures will reduce social isolation and that giving people who are vaccinated more freedoms "may help improve COVID-19 vaccine acceptance and uptake."

On its website, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has guidance for fully-vaccinated people, saying they can safely gather indoors with others who have been vaccinated without masks or distancing. (U.S. Centers for Disease Control)

Ontario has seen the number of people over 80 booking the appointments has declined, which is part of the reason it's opening bookings to other age groups.

But while the CDC clearly states all precautions should be followed unless a person is fully vaccinated, the Public Health Agency of Canada doesn't have any specific advice for people who have had the first or second shot — just blanket guidelines.

Noreen Tracey is hopeful after leaving the Metro Toronto Convention Centre following her first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

First-dose protection 'imperfect'

In an emailed statement to CBC News, a federal health agency spokesperson said because there is limited evidence about whether those vaccinated can still transmit the virus, everyone should continue to follow public health measures. 

"If you have had one dose, the protection is certainly imperfect and you perhaps have 50 to 60 per cent or so protection," Juni similarly told CBC News. 

"This means if you haven't received the full vaccination with two doses — you basically need to stick to the same rules as before. It's the same playbook as before, unfortunately."

Those vaccinated can still be infected with COVID-19 and can still transmit the virus, he said, making public health measures crucial. 

"By all means go for a walk, see your next of kin. Just be careful — you still need to keep your distance in these situations," he said. 

Peter Tidd says getting a haircut and seeing his grandkids are high on his post-vaccine list. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

Relief and hope 

Leaving a mass vaccination clinic at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Noreen Tracey said she'll now feel a little safer being around friends and family.

"So whatever little might be left in my life, I can spend it a little more freely!" she said.

Peter Tidd said he's relieved that he will be able to move about with fewer restrictions.

"I expect a big change from the last 12 months. I'll be going out!" he said. "I'm looking forward to seeing my grandchildren, but certainly I'm going to get a haircut first."

Pat Dixon, who received her first shot, says she'll happily wait until she's fully vaccinated before resuming any pre-COVID-19 activities. 

"I'm waiting until the second shot and then whenever they say it's become effective," she said.

"It's been a year of imprisonment, so a few more weeks or two months... that's nothing." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.

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