WASHINGTON — QUESTION:
Is it safe to travel and visit a grandparent or other loved ones once you’re all vaccinated?
- Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of NIAID and the nation’s leading expert in infectious diseases
- Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious disease and member of CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.
- Dr. Stephen Kissler, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Experts say visiting loved ones is much safer once you’re both vaccinated, but there are several factors to consider before abandoning public health measures like masks and distancing. And experts don't agree on when it's safe to head indoors and remove masks.
WHAT WE FOUND:
Like so many, Angie Harmon and her grandmother have been separated by COVID.
Francis lives in California and turns 100 in March. Angie hoped to fly out from Maryland to mark the milestone with her family.
“I want to go, but I also have to convince my family that it’s not safe for me to go,” Angie Harmon said. “I can’t put them in danger.”
Francis is now vaccinated, but Angie is still waiting her turn. She hopes to visit once she gets her shots.
“I believe it will be [safe],” Harmon said. “Unless a health official says something otherwise.”
Our Verify team brought that question to Dr. Anthony Fauci and two other top infectious disease experts.
“You’ve still got to be careful,” Dr. Fauci warned, pointing to several key concerns.
First, experts still don’t know if vaccinated people can carry and transmit COVID, even if they’re protected. Second, the COVID caseload is still dangerously high in communities across the country.
“You may be protected against clinically recognizable disease, but you could still get infected and have the virus in your nasal pharynx that potentially could be spread to another person,” Dr. Fauci said.
Experts also worry the vaccine may be less effective for certain vulnerable groups, including immunocompromised people.
“Because the grandmother is old, she may not have 95 percent protection,” Dr. Fauci said. “It very well may be that she was 50 percent protected, which means she may be one of the people that wasn't protected. And if you don't wear a mask, then you might transmit.”
Dr. Fauci says someone in Angie’s position should maintain public health measures as much as possible, even after she’s vaccinated.
“Until we get the overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated, the level of virus in the community will still be pretty high,” Dr. Fauci said. “You shouldn't travel unless you really have to travel. If she feels it's a compelling reason to see her [grandmother], then you can't say she shouldn't, but she should be careful; wash hands, physical distance, wear a mask.”
Health experts don’t totally agree on what’s “safe” once you’re vaccinated.
Dr. William Schaffner is advising people to keep wearing masks and distancing when visiting loved ones, even once they’re all vaccinated. He says the U.S. needs to get closer to herd immunity before that will change.
“Being a public health person, I'm going to take that extra precaution,” Dr. Schaffner said. “Let's get to 70 to 80 percent of folks vaccinated, and then we'll blow the all-clear whistle, and the masks can come off.”
Dr. Schaffner thinks we could reach that point by late summer.
Dr. Stephen Kissler, on the other hand, is weighing the social and mental health benefits. He says, once people are vaccinated, the benefit of hugging a loved one might outweigh the risk in many situations.
“Given what we know about the vaccines, an indoor mask-less encounter among fully vaccinated people shouldn't carry any higher risk than many other activities that we willingly engage in every day,” Dr. Kissler said. “If you're vaccinated, your parents are vaccinated, and it's really important to you and to them to see [each other], I think you can feel pretty confident about that.”
But Dr. Kissler says people still need to consider any vulnerabilities of their loved ones as well as the potential to carry COVID around their community.
“Maintain your caution and vigilance throughout the entire process of going to see them,” he said. “The costs that you're incurring are not always just your own. They often fall on people who you don't even see or notice. The people at the grocery store or the people in public transit. You want to make sure you're doing your best to keep them safe as well.”
For months, Dr. Fauci has urged Americans to do a risk-benefit assessment before seeing loved ones, to weigh the value of the visit and the risks it might pose to public health as well as your family.
Our VERIFY team asked Dr. Fauci if we are nearing a point, once people are vaccinated, where the benefit of seeing a loved one up-close outweighs the risk.
“I think that as the months go by, and you get more and more protection in the community, you could start pulling back on some of the stringency of the public health measures,” Dr. Fauci said in reference to herd immunity.
“You don't want to abandon them completely. But you want to use some common sense," he continued. "If there's a level of virus in the community that's so low, that the risk of getting infected is minuscule, you don't want to overdo it. You don't want to completely abandon but you don't want to overdo it.”
Dr. Fauci also says, even now, the risk is very low if two generally young and healthy vaccinated people getting together indoors without masks.
“If they're both vaccinated, then the chances of them getting infected or getting a clinical disease is extremely low,” Dr. Fauci said. “So you're right, you reach a point where you say the risk isn't zero, but it really, really is very low.”
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Experts agree visiting loved ones, including vulnerable and elderly people, is significantly safer once you’re all vaccinated. But they don’t totally agree on when it will be safe enough to head indoors and remove masks.
There are several risks to consider before abandoning any public health measures, including the potential to spread COVID even if you’re vaccinated, the current caseload in your area, and the vulnerabilities of the people you’re seeing.
“And it’s case by case,” Dr. Fauci said.