Adults are one of the priority groups for vaccination. After health workers and residents of nursing homes were vaccinated, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 75-year-olds and adults – along with other categories of key workers – were next in line for vaccines. In an increasing number of countries, older people are already being vaccinated or will soon be vaccinated.
What happens when older adults are vaccinated but their children and grandchildren are not? Can grandparents now visit their families safely or are there still certain precautions they need to take? We turned to CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health in Milken.
After the second dose, it will probably take another two or three weeks for the optimal level of immune protection to develop.
Suppose you have received a dose of vaccine. After a week or two, you have some level of immunity, but you could certainly get Covid-19 if you are exposed to a coronavirus. A few weeks after the second dose, studies have shown that the effectiveness of the vaccine is approximately 95%. This is a very high level of protection, but not 100%. So even after receiving both doses of the vaccine, you can still get Covid-19, but your chances are much lower. And if you get it, according to what we know from clinical trials, you’re probably less likely to get the disease than if you didn’t get the vaccine.
CNN: After an adult receives the second dose and three weeks have passed, can they visit their grandchildren?
Wen: Perhaps. The answer is not as simple as saying that someone who has been vaccinated can return to pre-pandemic life. That’s why.
First, the vaccine is not 100% effective. There is still a chance that someone who received the vaccine will receive Covid-19. This is especially true as there are many parts of the country that are subject to significant waves of infection. The rate of transmission from the community is very high, so you will still have a chance of getting coronavirus even after vaccination.
Second, the vaccine has not yet been shown to reduce the transmission of the virus. We don’t know if people who have been vaccinated can still be carriers of the virus, even if they don’t get sick. This means that you can protect yourself if you are exposed to someone with a coronavirus, but you can still be a carrier of the virus. When you get together with your loved ones, you can spread it to those who have not been vaccinated.
If your grandchildren live in the area, you can definitely see them outside, 6 feet away. If you want to see them indoors, there will be some level of risk. This risk will be much lower than if you have not been vaccinated, but the risk will still be with you. And you could still pose a risk to unvaccinated members of your family, as you could be an asymptomatic carrier who transmits to them.
If you really want to spend time with your grandchildren indoors, the safest way to do this is still for everyone to quarantine for at least 10 days and reduce their risk during those 10 days. Quarantine for seven days and a negative test is also an option, but everyone must also do the quarantine – just a negative test is not enough.
CNN: What’s the point of a vaccine if you still have to quarantine it before I see people?
Wen: From what we know so far in clinical trials, the vaccine does provide great protection. This will also bring you peace of mind. It reduces your chances of getting sick from the virus and getting seriously ill from it. We know that the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions have a much increased risk of serious illness and death, and the vaccine will significantly reduce these results.
Because you have a very reduced risk from receiving the vaccine, it is a personal judgment of which activities you value the most and you may want to consider returning them. Maybe it’s really important for you to hug your grandchildren. If you do this, acknowledge that this is not a zero-risk activity for you or them. It is still best for everyone to wear masks while embracing, and to do so outdoors and ideally with faces facing each other.
Maybe it’s really important for you to eat together. However, I would advise different dishes, without a buffet dinner and to eat outdoors, not indoors.
If you live far away from your grandchildren, you may consider traveling to see them if this is something extremely important to you. Of course, continue to follow all the rules of social distancing and disguise. And know that you still have some risk of both acquiring the virus and transmitting the virus.
Please note that the risk increases. Getting the vaccine reduces your overall risk, but that doesn’t mean you have to do every high-risk activity now. Maybe now you choose to have dinner with your grandchildren and hug them. Also, don’t decide that you have to go to an indoor restaurant with your friends and go to a crowded movie theater. You should still try to reduce the risk in your life as much as you can.
CNN: What if I have friends who also got the vaccine? Can I see them without my mask, indoors?
Wen: It is probably quite safe to see others who have also been vaccinated after each has received both doses and waited a few weeks.
Somehow you might see the vaccine being quarantined. If both parties have been quarantined, there is probably a fairly low risk of seeing each other safely. Similarly, if both parties have received the vaccine, you can probably see yourself relatively safely. But because we don’t know if vaccinated people can still be asymptomatic carriers if you engage in risky behavior, you can infect others with whom you have close contact who have not been vaccinated.
Let’s say you live with people who haven’t been vaccinated yet. You would not want to engage in activities where you could potentially acquire a coronavirus and then pass it on to others. This includes seeing other people who have been vaccinated but not wearing a mask – based on what we know now, they may have the virus and pass it on to you, and you can pass it on to the people you live with. Plenty of caution is still a good idea.
CNN: What will we need to socialize like we did before Covid-19?
Wen: The end of Covid-19 may come once we get to herd immunity. We don’t know exactly how many people will need to develop immunity to get to this point, although experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci estimate that it could take up to 85% of Americans to be vaccinated. At this level of immunity in the community, the coronavirus has nowhere to spread and could essentially disappear.
With the rate of spread of the vaccine so far, it will take some time to approach this level. Also, clinical trials are just beginning with children, so they will probably need to be vaccinated by summer or fall.
We need to adjust vaccination differently. Vaccination is not a “do what I want” switch, but rather another risk reduction tool. Wearing a mask is another such tool, as is social distancing, and we want to continue to use as many tools as possible to protect ourselves.
Getting the vaccine helps our community allow us to achieve herd immunity faster. It also gives us a license to do a few other things that we like – although we should still try to be as safe as possible.
CNN: When will your children see their grandparents?
Wen: We plan for the summer or early fall of 2021 for my father to visit us from Vancouver, Canada. My husband’s mother is in Johannesburg, South Africa. We hope to visit it for Christmas 2021, if everyone is vaccinated by December. They have not seen my 3-year-old for more than a year and will meet the baby for the first time – who is already 9 months old. We have no patience – although in the meantime we will have patience and be safe!