Can we hug our vaccinated grandparents? Experts say it depends

TORONTO — As some provinces open COVID-19 vaccinations to their oldest residents, experts say meeting up with older loved ones who’ve received the vaccine remains a dilemma.

On Monday, health officials in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia began offering appointments to have residents in the general population older than 80 or 85 vaccinated.

Does this mean we will soon be able to give our elderly parents and grandparents a long-awaited hug? Experts say yes, but with caveats.

“If a grandparent has had two vaccines … and at least a couple of weeks after that, then theoretically they should be safe against those viruses,” Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease expert and the director of global and Indigenous health at the University of Toronto, told in a recent phone interview.

“I think that a lot of grandparents have suffered a lot in the past year, suffered a lot not to have that contact with their family. So I think it might be safe if you do it cautiously.”

Banerji said there are several factors to consider when deciding to have a visit with a vaccinated loved one, including the older person’s mental health during the pandemic, their overall health and how much valuable time with them people are willing to miss.

“How long can we put our lives on hold and how long can we put our grandparents’– our parents’ — lives on hold?” she said. “It becomes, at that point, a discussion of risk and knowing risk and knowing that the vaccine is not 100 per cent.”

Studies have shown the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are more than 90 per cent effective against COVID-19, but it remains unclear just how effective they are against the coronavirus variants that have popped up across the country.

Banerji said meeting up with an older loved one ultimately comes down to understanding the risks and benefits associated with a meetup and making sure that all parties understand the risks.

“I think this is a situation where maybe it’s not the government telling us what we need to do or not to do, but it’s a discussion among the grandparents,” she said.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network in Toronto, said he believes government health officials will at some point offer guidance on how to handle these situations, but until then, it will be up to families to decide how much risk they are willing to take.

“As long as people are aware of (the risks), I think they can make informed decisions,” he said in a recent phone interview.

“You can’t obviously start having mass gatherings in indoor settings, that’s out of the question, but if you’re talking about small family gatherings or small gatherings with friends in private settings and everyone’s aware of what the risks and benefits are, I think people can certainly make choices that are aligned with their risk appetite.”

Bogoch said we’re entering an “interesting” phase of the vaccine rollout, where certain segments of the population will be vaccinated, while other segments will have not received it and it’ll come down to how comfortable people are with meeting up with each other.

“I think a lot of this is going to boil down to individual risk thresholds and individual risk tolerance and shared decision making between all parties involved,” he said.

“As long as we have shared decision making and informed decision making. I don’t see why we can’t have small interactions with one another.”

To help mitigate any risk of transmitting the virus to an older loved one, Banerji said suggested continuing the same public health measures people have been observing for the past year, such as wearing a mask, frequent hand washing and keeping physical distance when possible.

Banerji also suggests isolating as much as possible before a meetup, regardless if a loved one has already received the vaccine.

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