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What happens when you’re vaccinated and your partner isn’t?

Matt Levin Feb 10, 2021
Heard on:
Dr. Thomas Lew, who is vaccinated, and his fiancee, Anne Li, who is not. They're thinking about whether to take a trip to Hawaii. Matt Levin/Marketplace

What happens when you’re vaccinated and your partner isn’t?

Matt Levin Feb 10, 2021
Heard on:
Dr. Thomas Lew, who is vaccinated, and his fiancee, Anne Li, who is not. They're thinking about whether to take a trip to Hawaii. Matt Levin/Marketplace

Dr. Thomas Lew and his fiancée, Anne Li, are in the middle of their big weekly outing — a shopping run at Target. Li rates this about a 7 out of 10 on the pandemic fun scale. 

Friday nights in San Francisco used to mean debates about where to get dim sum or which bar to hit. Tonight, they’re debating how to blow $50 in rewards money.

But when Li catches a glimpse of a swimsuit she likes, this Target becomes a portal to another world.

“That will look good in Hawaii,” Lew says. The 33-year-old already has a laid-back, sipping-a-mai-tai-on-a-black-sand-beach kind of vibe, at least compared to other Target shoppers.

Lew, an internist at a Bay Area hospital, got his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine in early January. For 11 months straight he’s been caring for COVID-19 patients, and he’s ready for a vacation.

“Now that I’m vaccinated, and hopefully when Anne gets vaccinated, [we’re] a lot more confident to go on a flight, stay in a hotel, go out to the beach,” Lew says.

The vaccine rollout is still pretty much a mess. And the vaccinated still need to wear masks and socially distance.

But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 34 million Americans like Lew have received at least one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. That’s 34 million consumers who are less anxious about grocery shopping or eating out or going on vacation.

If Hawaii does happen in June, Lew and Li may be one of the few couples not traveling on an AARP discount.

“You’re going to see lots of geezers like me on airplanes,” said Eric Johnson, director of the Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia Business School.

The vaccinated, which for now means mostly the senior crowd, will be catching up on a year of missed dinner parties, resort stays, maybe even cruises. Think services and experiences, and less so anything you can order from Amazon.

For households in which only some members are vaccinated, Johnson expects to see a shift in risk sharing — who runs errands, who stays home? Especially in households like his in upstate New York.

“I will be vaccinated a little bit before my wife,” Johnson said. “I’m anticipating I’m going to be going to the grocery store.”

In other words, with great immunity comes great responsibility.

Just ask James McAfee, a Sacramento physical therapist who got his first shot three weeks ago.

On a Saturday afternoon, McAfee sat across from his father-in-law, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and wife, Sarah Burtner, as they chowed down on Vietnamese takeout.

These get-togethers used to make McAfee pretty uncomfortable, in a superspreader kind of way. Although Burtner suspects her husband may have had a different motive for opting out. 

“I just thought it was a little bit convenient,” Burtner said. “And perhaps there’s less of an excuse now to gather like this with my family.”

More time with in-laws was never listed as a side effect of the Moderna vaccine. But one syringe at a time, family gatherings like this one are becoming slightly more frequent. That’s a boost for restaurants and other local businesses.

“I’m not going to go out and do more shopping now that I’m vaccinated,” McAfee said. “But I would feel more comfortable hanging out.”

McAfee said he’s still kind of uneasy. For the Moderna vaccine, it’s unclear whether being vaccinated prevents you from passing on the virus. He still rehabs patients in person.

Couples with only one partner vaccinated are facing somewhat uncomfortable questions, beyond how often to dine with in-laws.

Anne Li has one for her fiancé. She’s 32, a real estate lawyer and healthy — at the bottom of the vaccine priority list. She and Lew are eyeing a trip in June, when he has scarce time off from the hospital.

“Thomas, you’re obviously vaccinated. But what if I’m not vaccinated? Are you going to go to Hawaii without me?” she asked.

Lew wouldn’t go to Hawaii without her. But maybe a trip somewhere else with other inoculated friends?

“I would hate to waste a good vaccine,” Lew said.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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