As a sense of normalcy begins to return to the Tri-Valley amid California's rigorous COVID-19 vaccination rollout, many fully vaccinated people are resuming activities they haven't done in over a year like dining at restaurants, returning to classrooms, and gathering with family and friends.
"I'm looking forward to seeing my grandchildren sometime now," Livermore resident Helen Machuga said, adding that she hasn't seen them in person since March 7, 2020.
She and her two granddaughters have held a weekly book club to stay in touch with each other via Zoom -- which the 73-year-old said she hadn't even heard of before the pandemic but has now become very well acquainted with it.
Although she said she doesn't always enjoy staring at a screen for hours, she believes the video conferencing platform, "saved many of our lives." She said, "If we couldn't do our book clubs and our talks and our meetings and things, it would have been horrible."
Machuga and her husband, John Hinton, received the Pfizer vaccine at Stanford Health Care-ValleyCare in Pleasanton.
While they are still wearing masks in public and practicing social distancing, Machuga said she feels safer now that she's vaccinated. She recently had two other vaccinated friends over for lunch for the first time. They all brought their own lunches and were planning to eat in Machuga's backyard, but it was cold and raining so they went inside: "We were inside without masks but we were socially distant, and it was the first time we got to do that since March (2020)."
According to the Bloomberg's COVID-19 vaccine dashboard, 17.8% of California's population have been fully vaccinated and 33.6% of the population has received at least the first dose.
Once fully vaccinated, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people can gather with others who are fully vaccinated without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart, travel in the U.S. without getting tested before or after travel or self-quarantining after travel, and gather indoors with unvaccinated people of any age from one other household without masks or staying six feet apart -- unless any of those people or anyone they live with has an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
Marylin Avenue Elementary School teachers Lara Lesuer and Heidi Robinson both received their Pfizer vaccines at the Oakland Coliseum drive-thru vaccination site.
"It was like a relief," Lesuer, 49, said. "You feel like you can go anywhere or do anything -- not that you're not going to wear a mask anymore or things like that, of course, but it's just a sense of relief. I could go back to teaching students in person, which is amazing, and it just feels better. It feels safer."
Along with being back in the classroom, Lesuer said it felt liberating to go back to the gym and to experience dining inside of a restaurant again for the first time since being vaccinated.
"Even though (the pandemic) is not over and we still have a long way to go, it almost feels like one step closer to normalcy," she said, later adding: "You can go out and not worry about being paranoid with people around you."
Robinson, 47, shared similar sentiments, saying that she feels "safe and protected" after being vaccinated. She said she has been seeing her parents over the past year outdoors, without getting close enough to touch them, but after they all were vaccinated they finally got to hug each other again.
"I just feel like I'm a part of history," Robinson said of her experience receiving the two shots. "It's just amazing that I'm living through it because it's going to be something that my grandchildren talk about," she added.
Last year, Robinson was featured on "Good Morning America" and other media outlets for personally delivering homework packets to the homes of all 17 of her transitional kindergarten students following school closures. Now that in-person learning has resumed in Livermore, she said she was so excited to see and hear kids back on the playground that she called her mom on FaceTime to share it with her.
Dr. Dawn Nwamuo, a physician who lives in Dublin, received the Moderna vaccine at Kaiser Permanente in San Leandro. Although she is fully vaccinated, she said she's still being cautious.
"Because I'm a physician, I understand that COVID can still be transmitted," Nwamuo said. "It's not just about getting yourself vaccinated, it's about protecting others also. The vaccine is more to protect yourself from if you get COVID; you're not necessarily going to die because you will have some antibody response to the disease."
Nwamuo, 45, said that it wasn't until her husband got vaccinated that she started to feel a little more comfortable in public. She recently dined outside at a restaurant for the first time and even took a walk outdoors without wearing a mask. "I'm taking it very slow," she said.
All four local residents said they experienced soreness in their arms at the injection site after receiving their shots. Robinson also mentioned having a headache that lasted about two days and Nwamuo experienced swelling and redness at the injection site along with body aches and fatigue that lasted about 24 to 48 hours. Despite enduring some mild side effects, none expressed anything but satisfaction about their decision to get vaccinated.
"People need to understand that getting COVID is much worse than getting the vaccine," Nwamuo said. "There are just so many people who have lost their lives and you don't know if it's going to be you, and I just don't feel like it's worth risking it."