Many grandparents have gone the entire pandemic without hugging their grandchildren. But before you visit anyone who has received the COVID-19 vaccine, it's important to consider these facts.

By Nicole Harris
January 21, 2021
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After months of anticipation, COVID-19 vaccines are finally being distributed across the country. Both approved vaccines (Pfizer and Modern) require two doses, and they're about 95 percent effective against the coronavirus. But is it finally safe to visit Grandma, Grandpa, and other high-risk relatives after they get vaccinated? 

The decision is actually quite complicated, says Jeannie Kenkare, D.O., FAAFP, chief medical officer of PhysicianOne Urgent Care. "There's still so much about COVID we're uncertain about," she says. We spoke with experts about important factors to consider before visiting vaccinated family members. 

The vaccine is highly effective, but it's not foolproof. 

Both Pfizer and Moderna require two doses. The first dose gives 50 percent protection against COVID-19, while the second dose raises the effectiveness to about 95 percent. This leaves a 5 percent chance that someone will still be susceptible to COVID-19 after vaccination, says Dr. Kenkare. Who knows if Grandma or Grandpa is one of those people? Although it's not likely, kids exposed to COVID-19 could asymptomatically transmit the virus to them. 

We don't know how long immunity lasts.

At this stage, experts don't know how long you're immune to COVID-19 after receiving the vaccine, says Rosemary Olivero, M.D., head of the pediatric infectious disease program at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital. It will depend on two factors: the duration of immune response and changes in the virus over time. "Influenza has a yearly alteration, so they change the flu vaccine components each year. We don't know if COVID will do the same thing," says Dr. Olivero.

That said, research indicates that the current vaccines are effective for at least 6 to 12 months, adds Sandra Adams, PhD,  Virologist and Professor of Biology at Montclair State University. We'll likely get a better grasp of vaccine immunity in the coming months, and we'll know whether the vaccine will ward off new strains of COVID-19 that are popping up around the world.

Experts don't know whether people can still spread COVID-19 after getting vaccinated.

Pfizer and Moderna are designed to protect vaccinated individuals from getting sick. Clinical trials didn't test whether they could still spread SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19, says Dr. Olivero. Vaccines usually prevent transmission, but it's too early to make a definite conclusion about the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Why is this important for families? "There are no vaccines currently available for children under the age of 16," says Dr. Adams. "Although children have not been shown to get as sick from COVID-19, it is still possible for them to catch the virus and unknowingly spread it." In other words, your kids could possibly contract the coronavirus from vaccinated family members.

Everyone should still wear masks and social distance— even after getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

The decision to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other extended family who have received the COVID-19 vaccine is completely up to you, but it's not something to take lightly. "Because the vaccines are not 100 percent effective, we should still practice preventative measures such as mask wearing and social distancing"—even around vaccinated family members, says Dr. Adams. "These measures are necessary to reduce the likelihood of continued spread until we have a high percentage of the population immunized." 

The Bottom Line

Experts hope that the vaccine will significantly reduce COVID-19 spread soon. In the meantime, it would be reckless to stop the precautions we've followed for the past several months. Practicing social distancing and wearing masks now will help shorten the duration of the pandemic in the long run.

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