How life changes after you get both COVID-19 vaccine doses

Dating during the pandemic is becoming less complicated and risky for attorney Shelley O’Connor.

Luis Parocua Jr. is no longer awakened by COVID-19 nightmares, triggered by the devastation he saw at his former hospital job.

Gone is the “looming anxiety” that Alice Liston says she felt commuting to her home healthcare job by public transportation.

These three Californians — along with more than 5.5 million others in the state who have received at least one vaccine dose — are entering the pandemic’s post-inoculation world, where some among the vaccinated are making plans to travel by air, eat inside restaurants, hug family members and enjoy a sex life with other vaccinated people.

None of those interviewed were planning to throw their masks in the air — as San Franciscans reportedly did (prematurely) at the end of the 1918 flu pandemic’s first year — or book a tour on a cruise ship.

Some don’t even plan to relax their habits. Many have become accustomed to the scary surges, the twists and turns of every new variant, and the caution ingrained from a year of warnings and rising death tolls. They want to see cases drop and more people vaccinated before truly easing their guard.

“It isn’t over until it’s over,” said Liston, a 30-year-old Berkeley home health aide.

The vaccinated have reason to exercise caution, say experts. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have been shown to be about 95% effective, which is reassuringly high but not 100%. Encouraging preliminary data suggest that most vaccinated people do not transmit the virus. Still, it is possible that inoculated individuals, showing no symptoms, could spread the virus. Which is why they still must wear masks.

Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, 73, a UCLA medical epidemiologist and infectious-diseases expert, received his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week and should have maximum protection 14 days afterward.

Still, Kim-Farley said, he will mask and distance around his grandchildren for their safety and when he goes out in public. But he will go to the grocery store every few days instead of twice monthly.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says such precautions must continue because of uncertainties, including how long vaccine protections will last. The group continues to advise against unnecessary travel, and federal rules require even vaccinated travelers to show negative tests for the virus before returning from abroad.

But health experts who have been vaccinated say they would feel comfortable flying, particularly after case rates come down. Fully vaccinated people can eat together, have sex with each other and socialize safely, said Dr. Robert Wachter, 63, professor and chair of the Department of Medicine at UC San Francisco.

“I think life can be back to normal when you are talking about what two vaccinated people can do together,” said Wachter, who has received both doses and now does all the family shopping.

A man and woman in masks walk toward a car.

Luis Parocua Jr. and his wife, Elizabeth, pick up breakfast from a restaurant.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Like many essential workers, Parocua spent much of 2020 fearing he would be stricken by the virus. He saw the pandemic close up, working as a technician sterilizing surgical instruments at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, before retiring at the end of last year.

Now fully inoculated, the Monterey Park resident said he was sleeping easier and even dined outdoors at a barbecue restaurant after getting his second shot.

“It feels good. If I go out there and I get sick, at least I know I’m not going to die,” said Parocua, 65.

Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert who teaches at UC Berkeley, has been holed up in his East Bay home with his wife for the past year. Both are in their 70s. With men more likely than women to die from infectious disease, his wife, a few years younger, has done all the shopping, donning a mask and a face shield.

Swartzberg became his wife’s hairdresser. Rather than risk contracting the virus at a salon, she picked up her hair color and applied it at home. Swartzberg colored the back for her. “She said I missed my calling,” he joked.

Luis Parocua looks outside the window at his home in Monterey Park.

Luis Parocua looks outside the window at his home in Monterey Park.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Now he is fully vaccinated and his wife soon will be. He said he would only take “baby steps” toward freedom.

“I am not going to relax completely in the last stretch of this,” he said. “You don’t want to be the last soldier to die after armistice is declared.”

Among the concerns of the inoculated are new variants of the virus that spread faster and are more resistant to the vaccine. Many health experts believe the vaccines will have to be reformulated to provide more lasting immunity, with booster shots given during the next six to 18 months, Wachter said.

While many in California suffer from “vaccine envy,” not everyone eligible is eager for their shot at immunity.

Alma Rosa Calvillo, a 58-year-old janitor who works for several South Los Angeles clinics, was reluctant to get the shots. Half of her family thought it would be too risky. But she relented when she showed up for work one day and the clinic had a spot for her.

Alma Rosa Calvillo stands by a wall with lettering: "Cudahy Family Health Center."

Alma Rosa Calvillo is a janitor at clinics in South Central in Los Angeles.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“I said, well, if the doctor is taking it and the medical assistants are doing it, I might as well,” she said.

After getting her second shot on Feb. 4, Calvillo immediately called her daughter in Burbank, who gave birth to a baby girl seven months ago. “Now that I have both vaccines, I can go visit!” she told her daughter.

But her daughter worried it still wasn’t safe. She said Calvillo spent too much time at the clinic and out in the public, and the baby girl might be infected. After swinging from skepticism to elation, Calvillo now recognizes that vaccinations can only change so much.

“You know, Latinos help their kids raise their kids,” Calvillo said. “I’ve only seen [the baby] once, and I haven’t even carried her. I feel bad, because I feel like they’re rejecting me. But I have to respect their thoughts.”

Nidia Salas, 68, a retiree who lives in Burbank, said she suffered depression and gained weight when the pandemic first shut down the world. Now that she and her son, a hospital custodian, are fully vaccinated, they are planning on visiting Las Vegas for her birthday in April.

Salas said she’d continue to be careful, wearing two masks and sanitizing frequently, but her old life is slowly reemerging. She and a vaccinated friend last week went out to eat and shop together: “I think we need to live life.”

For some of the vaccinated, it is time to schedule deferred medical and dental appointments.

Makda Ghebreyesus, 29, a teacher who lives with her mother in San Leandro, Calif., plans to travel to Mexico for dental work after receiving her second dose. The procedure she needs costs $4,000 in California, she said, but only $1,000 in Los Algodones, known as Molar City, a border town that caters to Americans seeking cheaper dental treatment.

A woman in a mask stands with her golden retriever.

Shelly O’Connor looks forward to dating again, once she’s fully vaccinated.

(Maura Dolan / Los Angeles Times)

For others, like O’Connor, the vaccine will allow for more romance. The Walnut Creek resident, 67, signed up for online dating in December, but she’s only been able to meet her dates for masked hikes.

Last weekend, she had a hike and a picnic with a college professor who, like her, had received his first vaccine dose. On their next date, both will be fully vaccinated. She will visit her son, who lives in Salt Lake City, on Mother’s Day.

For many in the San Francisco Bay Area, the pandemic hit home last March when the Grand Princess cruise ship was forced to remain offshore because of sick passengers and crew. The cruise industry then shut down, spurring people such as Clarissa and John Barry to cancel a planned boat tour to Alaska.

The retired couple, who live in the East Bay suburb of Alamo, want to travel again, possibly to Europe, but they have no desire to go on a cruise now.

Said Clarissa, 73, a retired administrator: “It’s going to be a couple of years before we do that.”