As COVID-19 vaccines roll out in the US, many grandparents – including a co-author of this blog post – are thrilled to reach out their arms for a push. In some parts of the country, these vaccinations started as early as mid-January. Until mid-February, legions of energetic and relieved seniors exchanged selfie photos of their newly vaccinated arms.
Grandparents, like other seniors, wanted the vaccine to protect themselves. There was another compelling reason, however: a desire to hug grandchildren. Ellen Glazer, LICSW, asked other grandparents in different states – some minutes away from grandchildren and others separated by continents – what they look forward to once fully vaccinated.
Below, Amy Sherman, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, addresses a number of hopes and questions – some very specific and others that can help anyone. Note that experts may not agree on what is safe or not after vaccination. Also, as we learn more about the vaccines and vaccinate more people, the advice is likely to change, which brings herd immunity closer.
While the breaking news – be careful, exercise protective measures – may be frustrating to grandparents relieved to have received the vaccine, it is necessary. If you think about the past year, many find that practices that seemed so difficult at the beginning of the pandemic, such as wearing masks and a certain amount of social distance, have become part of our lives. These new habits allow us to make small, well-informed, and hopeful steps toward our new normal.
Can I make others sick? Is it Safe to See (and Hug) Grandchildren and Family Members Who Didn’t Have the Vaccine?
Studies show that both mRNA vaccines (Moderna and Pfizer / BioNTech) are about 95% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19. Both vaccines protect against moderate to severe illness and reduce hospital stays and deaths from COVID-19, which is fantastic! However, we don’t know if these vaccines prevent asymptomatic infection – that is, being sick with the virus without symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath. So it is possible that you could have the virus without symptoms and pass it on to others.
In general, the more closely people interact with each other and the longer they spend with others, the higher the risk of getting or spreading the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
With these words of caution, I think it makes sense to watch and hug your family and grandchildren while you take protective measures to stay healthy:
- Wash your hands often.
- Wear masks that fit well when you are in close contact, e.g. B. in the same room with others and while hugging.
- Limit time with family members who have not yet been vaccinated.
- Keep the visit outdoors if you can.
If possible, anyone who congregates can further reduce the risk by avoiding contact with anyone outside their household 14 days prior to a visit and / or getting tested for the virus one to three days prior to a visit.
Can I still get sick?
I like to think of these vaccines as a waterproof jacket as opposed to a waterproof jacket. With the vaccine, you can still get wet, but not soaked. As explained above, it is still possible to develop an asymptomatic or mild illness. A small proportion of people can get more seriously ill despite being vaccinated. It is also important to keep this in mind
- Vaccines do not always provide robust immune responses in people aged 65 and over because the immune system usually weakens as they age. Even if you are vaccinated, you may not have the same high level of protection against moderate to severe illnesses that the studies have described.
- We are still learning about variant strains that are now in circulation. We don’t yet know how the vaccines will perform against these variants in the real world. Early indications suggest that the mRNA vaccines against some variants may not be as effective, but still help prevent hospitalization and death.
What if I live with someone who hasn’t received the vaccine?
It is best to continue the safe behavior that you followed before vaccination to protect your spouse or anyone else you live with. The vaccine is another layer of protection for you, and it will also help protect your spouse or other people in your immediate household. However, a transfer is still possible.
Can I visit friends or family members who have received the vaccine – for example, eating indoors or having a grandchild with us?
If you and your family or friends have been vaccinated, you can spend time together. As with a COVID pod or bubble, talk to your family or friends before meeting to make sure everyone is comfortable in person and with the precautions others are taking.
Some factors to discuss are:
- How recently was the vaccine given? How many doses did each person receive? We know that one dose of the mRNA vaccine offers some protection, but peak protection is likely to occur around 10-14 days after the second dose.
- The Potential for Asymptomatic Disease and Spread Even When People Are Vaccinated: Make sure everyone knows that transmission is still possible, although the chances of getting serious illness due to COVID-19 are small if everyone has been vaccinated. If someone has the virus, they can still pass it on to people who have not been vaccinated.
Can I travel safely on an airplane (and is First Class safer than a bus)?
First, check the CDC, status, and local policies before you fly. The CDC is currently recommending postponing the trip.
Your risk is not limited to the aircraft itself (or possible differences between First Class and Coach). How do you travel to and from the airport (public transport, carpooling)? What about check-in lines at the airport or a long stay in the gate area with others in a confined space? Do you need to use public toilets or eat in areas with many other travelers? These scenarios pose a higher risk of virus transmission.
If it is possible to drive, this may be a better option to limit exposure. In the car, you can limit stops, pack food and drink in the car, and avoid large gatherings of people that occur at airports and public transport.
If you have to fly, try to reduce the risk and exposure as much as possible. Your vaccine is a protective layer. There are other ways to protect yourself to reduce the chance of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19:
- Get a virus test one to three days before you leave. If it’s positive or you develop symptoms, don’t fly.
- Some airlines limit the number of seats and keep the middle seats open. Try to book a flight that meets these guidelines.
- Drive yourself or let your family drive you to the airport.
- Keep your mask on and avoid crowded areas at the airport.
- Avoid eating or drinking in waiting areas.
- Continue to wear a mask on the aircraft throughout the flight.
- Bring extra hand sanitizer and masks.
What other precautions do I have to take outside of my household and why?
COVID-19 rates remain very high in the community, and variants will continue to circulate. If you are exposed to the virus, even if you received the vaccine, you are not 100% protected from disease.
Until a large part of the population has been vaccinated, I recommend that you follow familiar precautionary measures outside the home: wash your hands frequently, wear masks, exercise physical distance. We need herd immunity in the community before we can loosen any of these protections. Even if you’ve been vaccinated, you don’t want to contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the community, which can make others very sick or even die.