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People nervous to give up masks after being vaccinated

"I miss smiling at people but don't want to spread Covid-19," a fully vaccinated Texan says.
Image: After a year of darkness and isolation, vaccinated seniors step out of the shadows
Sylvia Baer finally gets to hug and meet for lunch with other seniors weeks after receiving the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., March 5, 2021.Maria Alejandra Cardona / Reuters

You’re finally together. You start to peel the mask off. And then, suddenly, cold feet.

Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Millions of Americans who have got their Covid-19 vaccinations are likely to be hit with a case of the jitters the first time they strip their masks off in front of loved ones they haven’t seen in the flesh for months, or go out in public with their faces bared, experts said.

“Heaven help me! Yes,” Susan Cohen, 76, a fully vaccinated New Yorker, told NBC News when asked if she could ever see herself taking off the mask and returning to her old life.

But Cohen is not yet ready to go maskless, especially in public.

“I love restaurants, I love movies,” she said. “Even if I were perfectly safe, the scientific experts don’t think it’s time yet. I can afford to wait.”

Jacqueline Gollan, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said that’s the survival instinct kicking in.

“Many of us learned to reduce our risk of getting the virus by avoiding others,” she said. “We viewed social activities as an unsafe experience. We learned being around others was potentially catastrophic, so we perceived these scenarios with apprehension and vigilance.”

And that fear doesn’t lift like magic the minute a person gets vaccinated.

“It is normal to have anxiety about resuming social activities,” Gollan said, even while following federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Dr. Aderonke Pederson, an instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Feinberg, agreed.

“Right now, we know that two weeks after we get vaccinated, it is fine to gather with other fully vaccinated people,” she said. “However, it is expected that many of us may struggle with the transition back to some form of in-person socialization. The emotional impact of this past year may linger with us for longer than we might expect.”

Everybody has their own way of processing grief and trauma, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any American who hasn’t been affected in some way by the pandemic, Pederson said.

“For some people, there is ongoing grief for lost loves ones, missed funerals, missed goodbyes, and for others the economic impact has meant changes in lifestyle,” she said. “And for the Black community, these challenges have been compounded by the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Black people and ongoing racism that remains pervasive.”

“Once vaccinated, we have to reset our expectations,” Pederson added. “It takes time to learn how to reset our expectations, therefore we may continue to experience anxiety or stress when we socialize.”

Eugene Summerford and his wife, Debra Summerford
Eugene Summerford, 71 said he and his wife, Debra, 66, don't know when they'll feel comfortable going without a mask in public despite being fully vaccinated since January.Eugene Summerford

Eugene Sommerford, 71, a retired U.S. Army officer and lawyer, says he continues to feel anxious even after he and his wife have been vaccinated. But he’s motivated to keep wearing masks more out of a sense of duty to the country and to his 12-year-old granddaughter, whom he is raising after the death of his daughter.

“I miss smiling at people and them returning smiles, but I don’t want it to spread and worse, mutate into something more deadly,” said Sommerford, who lives in Harker Heights, Texas. “My granddaughter shouldn’t have to lose another parent.”

Cassie Chance.
Cassie Chance, 38 recently got her first shot of the Pfizer vaccine, but plans to continue wearing a mask in public even after she gets her second shot.Cassie Chance

Cassie Chance, 38, whose severe allergies and asthma made her eligible and has received her first shot, said she can’t imagine taking off her mask in front of anybody even after she gets her second shot.

“I probably will do it even a year from now,” Chance, who lives in Memphis, Tennessee, said about wearing a mask. “I have to protect myself from things in the environment that can trigger sickness. Not just Covid, but a lot of things.”

How do we get past the mask awkwardness? Be upfront with your concerns and take baby steps toward a more “normal” life, the experts said.

“If you want to meet with another fully-vaccinated person, it would be fine to say, ‘Let’s wear masks because I am not yet fully emotionally ready to take off my mask,'” Pederson said.

Come up with a plan, she said, “for how to engage with your extended family and community.”

“If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of gathering in small groups indoors with fully vaccinated people, it is OK to pass on the gathering and allow yourself time in doses to engage with others,” Pederson said. “Consider one-on-one gatherings instead of a bigger group.”

As for going out in public, play if safe and take your cues from the CDC, the experts said.

And, above all, take your time.

“We each have our own process and timeline for taking the first steps to normalize our activities,” Gollan said. “Nevertheless, taking small steps, such as limiting time with others, staying indoors, socializing with masks, even when vaccinated, can increase one’s confidence to assume their ‘normal routine’.”