- Older adults are being prioritized to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
- Many families may soon find themselves in a position where older adults are vaccinated, but their children and grandchildren aren't.
- Until more of the population is vaccinated and community transmission of the virus has gone down, physical distancing and mask wearing still need to be practiced, experts say.
For older adults who have been isolated from family and friends for the better part of a year to stay safe from the coronavirus, the emergency authorization of two COVID-19 vaccines offers some light at the end of the tunnel.
While the vaccine certainly offers more protection, experts caution it'll still take some time before life returns to normal.
That includes what visits with loved ones will look like.
“It’s exciting for people who have been vaccinated to think about resuming those things again, but we’re still not out of the woods yet,” said Dr. Ronan Factora, of the Center for Geriatric Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. “It’s a process.”
As the United States continues its vaccine rollout, people over the age of 75, along with frontline essential workers, are being prioritized to receive the shot after healthcare personnel and nursing home residents.
In the next phase, people 65 to 74 and adults with underlying health conditions will be offered the vaccine.
This will put many families in a situation where older adults are vaccinated, but their children and grandchildren aren't.
Healthline spoke with medical experts to see how families should go about visiting loved ones safely in these situations.
The risk is not zero
Dr. Colleen Kelley, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, said that while the vaccine is moving the country in the right direction, “we are not in a zero risk situation and a few things need to happen before we get down to even a minimal risk situation.”
Those things include getting most of the population vaccinated and getting community transmission of COVID-19 under control.
“We are still at levels well above what we saw during the summer surge in most places,” said Kelley, who's also a principal investigator for the Moderna and Novavax phase 3 vaccine clinical trials at the Ponce de Leon clinical research site.
Both she and Factora said it'll be well into 2021 before we get to this point.
Until then, the same protective measures that have been in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including physical distancing, mask wearing, and good hand hygiene, should continue to be practiced when visiting loved ones.
“Today in February, I would do the same things I was doing in December,” Kelley said. “Visit outdoors wherever possible. If you’re indoors, be masked. We still need to keep any gatherings very small and limited as much as possible.”
One reason for this is that whichever vaccine an individual gets, it won't be 100 percent effective. “Even with 94 or 95 percent efficacy with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine, you still have that risk,” Factora said.
At the rate at which the virus is spreading across the country, even that 5 percent chance can still be risky.
“Even though the vaccine protects you, there’s still that risk that you’ll contract it and for older adults, you’re still going to be at higher risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death compared to the rest of the population,” Factora said.
It’s also not known yet how well the vaccine is going to protect against emergent variants of the virus that are more contagious.
“That’s something scientists are studying, but it’s going to take some time [to figure out],” Factora said.
What activities are safe for older adults who have been vaccinated?
There's no zero-risk activity while the virus is still circulating. But older adults who have been vaccinated should feel more confident in taking part in activities with people who are considered low-risk.
“Particularly outdoor activities and particularly gatherings that are small, if you’re seeing family members who are not vaccinated but are still practicing social distancing and mask wearing,” Factora said, “you should feel safer because you now have an added protection with the vaccine.”
However, there's an added complication for many families: The vaccine hasn't been authorized for use in children.
The Pfizer vaccine has been authorized for people 16 and older, while the Moderna vaccine has been authorized for people 18 and older.
“There’s no time soon where we expect our children to be vaccinated,” Kelley said.
This may be of particular concern when it comes to older children and teenagers who are more likely to have larger social circles.
“In these instances, I think it’s a good idea for older adults to ask questions before a visit about where their grandkids have been over the last 10 days,” Factora said.
“If they’ve been keeping to themselves during that time and haven’t had symptoms, then you’re at lower risk of getting something because you’re outside the window where risk of transmission is highest,” he said.
Factora added: “If you can prepare for planned events by asking these questions and again keep the visits outdoors and limited, I think that’s a safe way for grandparents to see their grandkids.”
Experts said that once everyone in your social bubble has been vaccinated, the risk of COVID-19 transmission goes down.
While this may take a while for families with multiple generations, older adults should feel more comfortable about spending time with peers of the same age who have also been vaccinated.
“If you get vaccinated and the people within your bubble get vaccinated, you should have greater confidence that you’ll be less likely to contract COVID-19,” Factora said.
“This is great for many older adults in independent or assisted living facilities,” he said. “Engaging in social activities like card games and common dinners with friends and neighbors who have also been vaccinated, this should give you a better sense of safety.”
Until more of the population is vaccinated and community transmission goes down, older adults should still stay away from closed indoor spaces that are poorly ventilated.
“Bars, restaurants, crowded rooms, places where there’s lots of people — these are circumstances that are still considered highest risk that should be avoided,” Factora said.