Every adult in Idaho is eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines, but the number of adults who've received at least one dose in Idaho is barely more than halfway toward the 80% benchmark that experts say could pave a path for the virus to be under control. And that doesn't include young children, who don't have access to vaccines but are a crucial part of herd immunity.
The finish line is in sight, experts say. But some worry that people bogged down by pandemic fatigue may let their guard down on following social distancing measures.
Full vaccination can let people return to some aspects of life pre-pandemic. In guidelines released April 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it's safe for fully vaccinated people to visit other fully vaccinated people in private settings without wearing masks, privately visit unvaccinated people from one household at low-risk for severe COVID-19 without wearing masks and to even travel domestically without quarantining after.
But full vaccination shouldn't be treated as a pass to return to everything common before 2020, three Idaho Falls doctors told the Post Register this month.
'The vaccines are not 100%'
Dr. Barbara Nelson serves as a physician representative on the Eastern Idaho Public Health board and was the sole vote against the board's move to end mask mandates across the region in March.
After hunkering down for much of 2020 and grocery shopping "as needed," Nelson is enjoying the benefits of vaccination.
She and her family recently returned from a trip to Disney World in Florida.
She said they felt safe by social distancing and wearing masks on the plane down.
"We feel better about our risk of infection," Nelson said in a phone interview. "Those risks are not zero, but we still want to lower our risk" by following "the mitigation strategies that have proven to be effective," such as wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing.
She also ate at restaurants, which she recognizes is inherently risky because you're unmasked in public. But she said she minimized risk by choosing a restaurant where tables were spaced apart and staff were wearing masks.
"You have to figure out what kind of risk level you're going to accept," Nelson said.
Still, Nelson said it's too soon to "perfectly open up until we have a greater proportion of the population vaccinated."
Infections two weeks after someone's final COVID-19 vaccine dose — when the CDC considers people fully vaccinated — are extremely rare, but not impossible.
"The vaccines are not 100% effective," Nelson said. Hospitals nearby have treated COVID-19 patients who were either partially or fully vaccinated, she pointed out.
'A message of compassion'
Dr. Martha Buitrago, an infectious disease specialist, was among the first frontline health care workers in Idaho to get vaccinated.
Now that other physicians she knows are vaccinated too, she feels comfortable having coffee unmasked in private. But she said she isn't yet ready to eat inside restaurants, which a CDC investigation in September said are associated with coronavirus spread.
Staff inside her Idaho Falls private practice still wear masks, which Buitrago said is partly to set an example to others. She prefers framing it as an act of compassion, rather than the "fear" framing that she said people who oppose mask wearing adopt.
"It's a community problem. We all need to understand we are doing things for each other," Buitrago said.
Not enough people are vaccinated to ease up, she said. But when that timecomes, she said, recommendations will adapt.
"People need to understand the science evolves and as we have information, we need to change to accommodate," she said. Buitrago said shifting CDC guidance shouldn't necessarily be cause for criticism. It should be reassuring that the science changes as new information is determined to be reliable.
"That's being a mature scientist," Buitrago said.
'Hug their grandchildren'
Dr. Kenneth Krell directs the intensive care unit at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, where he's seen first-hand the impacts of the raging virus.
Throughout the pandemic, Krell's had to share a lot of bad news: That his ICU was informally rationing care, that hospitals across the state were approaching a resource crisis.
But now, when Krell goes to vaccine clinics, he's told people "they can feel free to hug their grandchildren without a mask on" once they're fully vaccinated.
No vaccines are approved for children under age 16 yet, but state leaders hope that a vaccine could be available for kids age 12 to 15 by September. Children being unvaccinated are still a risk, Krell said, but seeing them can be done safely.
"I believe that if all of the adults in an extended household are vaccinated … the risk of transmission from those adults to young children is low enough that I subscribe to the CDC recommendation that (fully vaccinated people) can be around them, without masking, safely," he said.
Just recently, Krell and his wife ate in a restaurant for the first time together in a year. Then, later last week, they went to another restaurant. Krell said they actually ended up turning down a few restaurants that didn't seem up to safe to him — either because staff members weren't all wearing masks or tables were crammed together, making social distancing impossible.
Being vaccinated, Krell said, offers hope "that we can start to move back toward some sense of normalcy, recognizing that we probably are going to need to maintain masking in public for some time. But … we can feel comfortable with our close family, outside of our immediate household."
Buitrago sees being fully vaccinated similar to getting your driver's license.
"There are rules on the road. We need to be careful," she said.