When Will Life Return To Normal After Vaccines? Here's What Experts Say

The Vaccine Has Arrived: Here Are The Next 3 Stages Of ‘Returning To Normal’

January 20, 2021 Updated January 29, 2021

Medical Mask with world map
Scary Mommy and Peter Zelei Images/Getty

Back in the early days of the pandemic, I wrote and wondered about what life would look like after the pandemic. Then, I was worried about the invisible scars the pandemic might leave, the emotional toll it would exact.

Now I don’t have to wonder. We know: hundreds of thousands of lives lost, families devastated, health care workers burnt out, and life upended for the better part of a year for so many of us.

When I wrote then, I naively thought the pandemic would be over by spring, maybe early summer. (Yes, friends tried to disabuse me of that notion, and still I preferred to tell myself a hopeful little story.) When I wrote then, I naively thought the pandemic would end with some definitive announcement—a nationwide PSA with fireworks and sparklers. As if the pandemic could end by flipping the switch from on to off. (Yes, I really pictured a block party.)

Obviously now I know I was wrong on both counts. The pandemic didn’t end over the summer (though thanks to the vaccines currently approved and those coming down the pipeline, we can talk about “the end” without deluding ourselves), and it won’t end with a bullhorn letting us know it’s okay to come out and hug our friends now.

Instead, according to an article in Vox, experts expect that life will return to normal in stages.

Stage 1: Your Circle Is Vaccinated

As Vox explains, likely the very first return to “normalcy” (whatever that looks like now) will occur once you and your closest friends and family are vaccinated. Because we do not yet know whether the vaccine prevents infection and transmission—we know only that it prevents the particular individual from severe symptoms—our daily life will likely not look very different during stage one. You will still need to wear masks in public; you’ll have to social distance from those not in your circle, but you could feel confident getting together without precautions with vaccinated people in your circle.

With caveats.

Getting together with other vaccinated friends and family members without masks and social distancing is a low risk activity, assuming no one in the group has underlying conditions and/or lives with a vulnerable unvaccinated person.

It’s also important to remember that the vaccines don’t work instantly. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist affiliated with Georgetown University, noted the timing. “You need to wait at minimum two weeks after the first shot to see any kind of protection, but really you need to wait at least a week after the second shot,” she told Vox.

With all that being said and noted, stage one comes down to being able to take a small breath of air on a very micro level, but still acting responsibly on a macro level.

Stage 2: Your Community (City/State) Has Reached Herd Immunity

Malte Mueller/Getty

According to Dr. Fauci, herd immunity is reached when 75-85% of the population is immune to the virus. Chances are the United States won’t reach that level until mid-Fall, and even that estimate might change depending on a variety of factors.

But individual cities and states may reach that level earlier. When they do, experts expect that we’ll see a gradual rollback of restrictions. For example, indoor dining may reopen fully but masks will still be required. In fact, it’s best to keep the masks handy for a while during this stage. Mask mandates will likely be one of the last requirements to be rescinded.

Stage two means taking a little bit of a bigger breath, being able to visit vaccinated friends and family in neighboring communities that have also reached herd immunity, but still respecting that a pandemic is raging and our global community is not yet protected.

Stage 3: Global Herd Immunity Is Here

Managing expectations, keeping hopes at a reasonable level, is a skill set I do not have, but experts caution that’s exactly what’s required when thinking about global immunity. Most likely, according to The World Health Organization (WHO), we will not see global immunity until 2022 or later, which means international travel will still be on hold.

Countries like the United States, Canada, and places in Europe are getting access to the vaccine more easily than other countries. The countries with less access to the vaccine will take longer to reach that herd immunity threshold.

As a result, international travel will depend on “what we learn over the next few months about how well the vaccine prevents infection and transmission,” Eleanor Murray, a Boston University epidemiologist, tells Vox.

If it becomes clear that the vaccines do prevent infection and transmission, it’s possible countries that have not yet reached herd immunity will allow in vaccinated travelers. But if it turns out that vaccination only prevents symptomatic disease and not also transmission then, “it would be really inappropriate to be going somewhere where they can’t afford the vaccine and still spreading disease,” says Murray.

Despite the roll out of the vaccine, and the hopes we have in the ones coming down the pipeline, the next few weeks might be the darkest we’ve seen yet in this pandemic. Some experts have predicted that we’ll see half a million lives lost by the middle of February.

Now is not the time to give up on mask wearing and social distancing, even if you’ve gotten the vaccine. We’re all tired of this pandemic life, and we’ve finally reached the point where we can talk about “the end” of the pandemic without dreaming into a vacuum, but we need to be smart and patient. The pandemic won’t end once you are vaccinated, or even once your close friends and family are vaccinated. But it will end—when everybody is safe.

The response to this pandemic has always required thinking in terms of the “we” rather than the “me” and the end of this pandemic will be no different.

Information about COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and Scary Mommy is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. With news being updated so frequently, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For this reason, we are encouraging readers to use online resources from local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization to remain as informed as possible.