There hasn’t been a clear-cut guide for having sex with a person who doesn’t live with you during a pandemic, so most people have had to work with the available evidence and create their own rulebook. Maybe you asked partners what their exposure is like or agreed to get tested; perhaps you said to hell with it and jumped in bed with a stranger or, conversely, settled into a dry spell.
Now that people are getting vaccinated, the CDC released a whole new set of rules for what is and isn’t safe for people with a full dose of the vax. Again—no mention of sex, but this time, things are a lot clearer in that capacity, too. Anne Liu, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, says because COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, the guidelines for having sex during the pandemic are essentially the same for any other activity that involves close contact with other people. Let’s break it down.
The new guidelines state that vaccinated people can safely hang with other vaccinated people indoors, masks off. The same applies to sex: If you’re vaccinated and want to play it as safe as possible, look for another vaccinated person. “It is very low-risk for two vaccinated individuals” to have sex, said Liu.
The rules also state that vaccinated people should feel free to mingle—and therefore hook up—with unvaccinated people who are low-risk in small groups, as long as the group doesn’t mix unvaccinated people who live in different households. “If the person who’s unvaccinated is at low risk for severe disease and is also at low risk for exposure, then it’s probably a pretty low-risk situation” to have sex with them, said Liu. Basically: Once you have the vaccine, you can have sex with any other partner who’s low-risk that you want, vaccinated or not.
It’s still unclear if vaccinated people could be asymptomatically infected and transmit the coronavirus to unvaxxed people who could get sick, but recent data suggest the vaccines drastically reduce how contagious an infected person is. It’ll be important to keep an eye on the variants that are rapidly spreading—though the vaccines are highly effective against the original coronavirus, it’s unclear exactly how well they’ll hold up against new variants. With all things, unvaccinated people still need to gauge their personal risk and take extra precautions—“that also applies to having sex,” Liu said.
You might also be wondering if a quick rapid test could make sex between a vaccinated person and an unvaccinated person feel even safer. When in doubt, Liu said, “It’s better to test than not test.” Because researchers are still trying to understand how vaccinated people contract and transmit the coronavirus, rapid tests could provide an extra layer of protection for unvaccinated parties. There is one huge caveat, and that’s that rapid tests don’t produce positive results in infected individuals until a few days after they’ve been infected, so they could give a false negative result even if a person was actually infected. “They’re not 100 percent accurate,” Liu said.
At this point, there’s no frequency cap on how often vaccinated people can have close contact with others, vaxxed or not. The CDC states that fully vaccinated people who’ve been exposed to COVID-19 and don't have symptoms do not need to quarantine, but they should isolate and get tested if symptoms appear. Either way, your partners would probably appreciate knowing how many degrees away they are from a coronavirus case—especially as new variants whip around. “Until we know how the [vaccine] interacts with variants that are popping up, we won’t fully understand how much protection is conferred,” said Liu.
The main takeaway, according to Liu, is that weighing your risk isn’t about sex itself, it’s about sharing air. “If it’s safe to be around someone and breathe the same air, then there’s no additional risk from sex above and beyond in terms of COVID,” she said.
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