As COVID-19 vaccines roll out across the United States, many grandparents – including a co-author of this blog – are excited to reach out for a shot. In some parts of the country, these vaccinations began in mid-January. In mid-February, legions of energized and relieved seniors were exchanging selfies of their newly vaccinated arms.
Grandparents, like other seniors, wanted the vaccine to protect itself. However, there was another compelling reason: the desire to kiss grandchildren. Ellen Glazer, LICSW, asked her other grandparents in different states – some of whom live minutes from their grandchildren and others who are separated by continents – what they look forward to when fully immunized .
Below, Amy Sherman, MD, an infectious disease specialist and medical instructor at Harvard Medical School, discusses a number of hopes and questions – some very specific and others that can help anyone. Keep in mind that experts may not agree on what is and is not safe to do after vaccination. Also, advice is subject to change as we learn more about vaccines and more people get vaccinated, bringing herd immunity closer.
Although the current messages – be careful, practice protective measures – can be frustrating for grandparents relieved to have received the vaccine, they are necessary. Thinking about the past year, many realize that practices that seemed so difficult at the start of the pandemic, such as wearing masks and engaging in some social distancing, are now part of our lives. These new habits allow us to take small, well-informed and hopeful steps towards our new normal.
Can I make other people sick? Is it safe to see (and hug) grandchildren and family members who have not been vaccinated?
Studies show 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 hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19, which is fantastic! But we don’t know if these vaccines prevent asymptomatic infection – that is, getting infected with the virus without symptoms like fever, cough, and shortness of breath. It is therefore possible that you have the virus without symptoms and pass it on to others.
In general, the more closely people interact and the more time they spend with others, the greater the risk of contracting or spreading the virus, depending on the doctor. Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention (CDC).
With these words of warning, I think it’s reasonable to consider seeing and hugging your family and grandchildren while taking protective measures to stay healthy:
- Wash your hands often.
- Carry masks that go well in close contact, for example in the same room with other people and hugging.
- Limit the time spent with family members who have not yet been vaccinated.
- Arrange the visit outside if you can.
Where possible, everyone who assembles can further reduce risk by avoiding contact with people outside their home for 14 days prior to a visit and / or by obtaining tested for virus one to three days before 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 always possible to develop an asymptomatic or mild disease. A small proportion of people can get more serious illness despite vaccination. In addition, it is important to note that
- vaccines do not always provide strong immune responses in people 65 years of age and older because the immune system normally weakens with age. Therefore, even vaccinated, you may not have the same high level of protection against the moderate to severe illnesses described in the studies.
- we are still learning about the variant varieties currently in circulation. We don’t yet know how vaccines behave in the real world against these variants. Early indications suggest that mRNA vaccines may not be as effective against some variants, but still seem to help prevent hospitalizations and death.
What if I live with someone who has not been vaccinated?
It is best to maintain the safe behaviors you had before the vaccination to help protect your spouse or others you live with. The vaccine is another layer of protection for you and also helps protect your spouse or others in your immediate household. However, transmission is still possible.
Can I visit friends or family who have received the vaccine – for example, have a meal together indoors or have a grandchild with us?
If you and your family or friends have been vaccinated, you may want to consider spending time together. As with a COVID pod or bubble, talk to your family or friends before you get together, to make sure everyone is comfortable socializing in person and with the precautions others take.
Here are some factors to discuss:
- When was the vaccine given? How many doses did each person receive? We know that one dose of the mRNA vaccine offers some protection, but maximum protection probably occurs about 10 to 14 days after the second dose.
- The potential for asymptomatic illness and spread, even if people are vaccinated: make sure everyone knows transmission is still possible, although the likelihood of serious illness from COVID-19 is low if everyone has been vaccinated. However, if someone has the virus, they can pass it on to unvaccinated people.
Is it safe to travel by plane (and is first class safer than the coach)?
Start by checking the CDC, state, and local guidelines before you fly. The CDC currently recommends postponement of travel.
Your risk isn’t limited to the aircraft itself (or the potential differences between First Class and the trainer). How will you travel to and from the airport (public transport, carpooling)? What about check-in lines at the airport, or sitting in the gate area with other people nearby for an extended period? Will you need to use the public restrooms or eat in areas with lots of other travelers? These scenarios carry higher risks of virus transmission.
If it is possible to drive, it may be a better option to limit exposures. In the car, you can limit stops, pack food, and eat and drink in the car, and avoid the large gatherings of people that occur at airports and public transportation.
If you must fly, try to minimize risk and exposure as much as possible. Your vaccine is a layer of protection. Protect yourself in other ways to reduce your chances of getting infected with the virus that causes COVID-19:
- Take a viral test one to three days before you leave. If it’s positive or you develop symptoms, don’t fly.
- Some airlines limit seats and keep the middle seats open. Try to book a flight that meets these guidelines.
- Drive yourself or have your family drive you to the airport.
- Keep your mask on and avoid crowded areas of the airport.
- Avoid eating or drinking in waiting rooms.
- On the plane, continue to wear a mask throughout the flight.
- Bring extra hand sanitizer and masks.
What precautions should I still take outside my home and why?
COVID-19 rates remain very high in the community and variants will continue to circulate. If you are exposed to the virus, you are not 100% protected against the disease, even if you have received the vaccine.
Until a large proportion of the population is vaccinated, I recommend maintaining the usual precautions outside the home: washing hands often, wearing masks, practicing physical distancing. We need collective immunity in the community before we can relax any of these safeguards. Even if you have been vaccinated, you do not want to contribute to the community spread of COVID-19 which can make others very sick and even die.