(KHN)With a mix of relief and caution, older adults fully vaccinated against Covid-19 are moving out into the world and resuming activities put on hold during the pandemic.
Many are making plans to see adult children and hug grandchildren they haven't visited for months — or longer. Others are getting together with friends indoors, for the first time in a long time.
People are scheduling medical appointments that had been delayed and putting trips to destinations near and far on calendars. Simple things that felt unsafe pre-vaccination now feel possible: petting a neighbor's dog, going for a walk in the park, stopping at a local hangout for a cup of coffee.
"I feel I can breathe again," said Barry Dym, 78, of Lexington, Massachusetts, expressing a widely shared sense of freedom.
The rapid rollout of Covid-19 vaccines to people 65 and older makes this possible. As of March 29, 49% of seniors in the US had been fully vaccinated while nearly 73% had received one dose of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. (A third vaccine, from Johnson & Johnson, became available earlier this month and requires just one dose.)
Recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes the protection that vaccines offer. According to the CDC, people who are fully vaccinated can meet indoors without masks, without incurring significant risk. Also, they can visit relatively safely with people who haven't been vaccinated, so long as those individuals are healthy and gatherings remain small.
Still, with coronavirus variants circulating and 55,000 new infections reported daily, the CDC continues to recommend precautions elsewhere, such as wearing masks, staying physically distant in public and refraining from air travel.
How are older adults who've been fully vaccinated — a privileged group, to be sure, given the millions of seniors who've yet to get shots — balancing a desire to shed isolation with a need to stay safe amid a pandemic that's not yet over? I asked several people I've spoken with previously about their plans and their reflections on the difficult year we've been through.
Mardell Reed, 80, of Pasadena, California, told me she wasn't sure she'd get the vaccine originally, because "I was concerned about the process going so fast and drug companies maybe producing something that wasn't up to par." But she changed her mind "once we all started hearing from actual scientists rather than politicians."
Now, Reed tries to educate people she knows who remain reluctant to get the shots. One of them is her 83-year-old stepsister. "No one had explained anything about the vaccines to her," Reed told me. "I talked about all the things that would be possible — seeing her daughter, who lives up north, seeing more of her grandkids, and I think that convinced her."
Reed used to walk in her neighborhood regularly before the pandemic but stopped when she became afraid of being around other people. Reviving that habit is a goal.
Among Reed's other priorities in the months ahead: visiting with her daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and seeing her primary care physician, a dentist, a neurologist who's treating nerve damage and an eye doctor. "I didn't want to go to places where people might be sick this last year; now, it's time for me to catch up on all that," she said.
Harry Hutson, 73, and his wife, Mikey, 70, invited two couples to their house in Baltimore, on separate nights, after getting their second Moderna shots in February and waiting two weeks. "We're going right into having safe dinners with people who've been vaccinated," Hutson told me.
He feels a touch of lingering uncertainty, however. "While we're 95% sure this is the right thing to do, we're a little tentative. For a whole year, we've had 'Covid is death' engrained in us. After that, you can't just go back to normal, just like that," he said.
Hutson has continued working as an executive coach during the pandemic and has recently been giving talks on hope to business groups, nonprofit organizations and churches. "What I tell people is 'You'll help yourself by helping others.' We're all emerging from trauma and healing has to be a collective, not an individual endeavor."
On a personal note, Hutson is going through an attic full of yearbooks, letters and photos, "curating my family's history." He hopes to make an across-the-country road trip with his wife later this year visiting his son's family in Madison, Wisconsin, his daughter's family in Portland, Oregon, and his brother in Eugene, Oregon, as well as several friends.