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When is it safe to hug an elderly loved one during COVID-19?

Over a year has passed since the coronavirus pandemic changed the way families are able to safely interact with their aging or elderly loved ones. Although the World Health Organization notes that all age groups are at risk of contracting COVID-19, the specialized agency has stressed that older people face a significant risk of developing severe illness if they contract the disease. This is due to physiological changes that come with aging and potential underlying health conditions. Yet, as vaccinations increase and restrictions are lifted, many family members have questioned if and when they can safely hug their older loved ones.

In laying out basic COVID-19 recommendations based on age, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared that people in their 50s are at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 40s. Similarly, people in their 60s or 70s are, in general, at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 50s. Following this logic, the public agency says the greatest risk for severe illness from COVID-19 is among those aged 85 or older.

This is why the CDC has stressed that older adults and others at increased risk of severe illness should take steps to protect themselves from getting COVID-19. These steps include limiting in-person interactions with others as much as possible, especially when indoors. Other ways aging and elderly adults can protect themselves from contracting the virus are practicing social distancing, keeping six feet away from others, and disinfecting shared surfaces as much as possible.

Given these recommendations, many younger and middle-aged adults with older parents have made the difficult but necessary decision to go without seeing them for weeks — if not months — during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has had mental and emotional effects on both children and parents. Strides toward herd immunity have offered a glimpse of hope during these difficult times. However, cautious family members are still asking themselves, “When is it okay to see, and even hug, my elderly parents again?”

The short answer is after elderly loved ones have been fully vaccinated. New guidance from the CDC for vaccinated people states that they can visit indoors with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk of contracting severe COVID-19 disease, without wearing masks or physically distancing. 

However, vaccinated people should still continue to practice prevention measures, such as wearing masks and maintaining physical distance, when visiting people who have an increased risk of developing severe COVID-19 disease or who have an unvaccinated household member who has an increased risk, as well as with unvaccinated people from multiple households. Those vaccinated should also continue to avoid medium-size and large in-person gatherings.

If both parents and children have been fully vaccinated, they can meet face-to-face again and hug without concern of COVID-19 infection. In general, Dr. Aaron Richterman, an infectious disease physician at the University of Pennsylvania, shared that two vaccinated people together is “going to be about as safe as you can get.” However, it is important to always take precautions, remember the risks, and look to credible agencies for updated information and recommendations moving forward.

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