Congratulations! If your 75-and-over parent scored a vaccine without you, middle-aged child, melting into a Zombie-like state in front of 30 open tabs trying to land them an online appointment, I applaud you. But now, new questions: Can they safely visit? Go on vacation with you? Hug grandchildren?
To answer these questions, I turned to Dr. Elissa Perkins, associate professor of emergency medicine, vice chair of emergency medicine research, and director of emergency department infectious disease management at Boston University School of Medicine/Boston Medical Center. She’s a mom with older parents, too.
I also consulted Lindsey Leininger, a health policy researcher and clinical professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. She’s the co-creator of Dear Pandemic, a popular website that addresses common questions about COVID-19. Also a mom with her own older parents.
Here’s their advice.
Please, get the vaccine. Your parents might be concerned about side effects, especially if they have other conditions. Although there are very rare exceptions — and, of course, your parents should consult their physicians first — side effects from a vaccine are far less dangerous than actually contracting COVID-19 as an elderly person.
“For virtually everybody, the benefits strongly outweigh the risks of the vaccine. People with co-morbidities are likely to do far worse with COVID,” Perkins says.
Yes, there are side effects. Perkins had shaking chills and a fever. However, she says, these symptoms should resolve within 48 hours. Just plan to feel yucky for a couple of days.
Don’t expect instant immunity after your shots. Your parents — anyone, actually — will remain susceptible to COVID within 14 days of getting the first shot. That 14-day window, especially, is not the time to let your parents take kids for a mask-free weekend, despite the relief.
And, even after they’re fully vaccinated, they’re not immune.
“The temptation will be to change behavior once people are vaccinated, and they need to know within the first 14 days, they are not safe. Even after that, vaccines are 95 percent effective,” Perkins says.
That’s the catch: The vaccine isn’t a magic bullet. That said, even though it’s not 100 percent effective in preventing infection, it is effective in preventing severe infection and death, which is hugely reassuring. Just remember that your child can still transmit COVID-19 to an older person, though the impact should be less severe.
Ultimately, says Leininger, we need to get to a place where risk of transmission is low, risk of exposure is low, and risk of a poor outcome is low if you do still get COVID-19. We’re not there yet, and those stars need to align.
But are kids safe from grandparents? The tables have turned, Perkins says. Kids used to be the threat to grandparents; now it could be the other way around.
“Previously, I was terrified about getting my kids together with grandparents, frightened my children could unknowingly have COVID and pass it on to my parents, who would then get deathly ill. That’s much less of a fear. I am comfortable that my parents won’t get deathly ill — the vaccine is protective enough that it won’t cause death for them. However, I now have a fear that my parents can unknowingly have COVID and accidentally infect my children,” Perkins says.
The good news is, children appear to be remarkably resilient. More likely? A lesser infection that could keep them out of school with runny noses and fevers, says Perkins.
We’re not yet clear if people who have been vaccinated can still transmit the virus to others, though Perkins expects to know more in a month or two.
“Based on what we know about vaccines in general, and [about] this virus, I think there is a very good chance that we will find once you have been vaccinated, it’s unlikely for you to transmit it to someone else,” she says — making those grandparent-kid interactions even safer.
“When my children are with my parents, I still plan to keep them masked and not on top of each other. But there’s a noticeable shift in the risk,” she says.
What if my whole family is vaccinated? If you’re looking ahead to summer — maybe gathering at a beach house or going on a big family vacation after even middle-aged people get their jabs — Perkins is more sanguine. If everyone is vaccinated, she says, it’s much safer to gather indoors. But she still recommends taking “basic precautions, like keeping masks on, staying distanced, and making sure windows are open a crack,” she says.
A word about variants. We’re hearing about new variants from other areas, but Perkins believes our current vaccines provide “substantial immunity” against them, and that they could be further mitigated with a booster shot down the road. The current hurdle is getting more people vaccinated in the first place and racing against time to do that.
“Looking to the future in the next 5 to 10 years, we don’t have to worry too much. It is easy enough to adapt to variants, but what that means for the next three to six months is that we can’t count on the vaccine technology to mitigate the problems we will see,” she warns.
In Massachusetts, the rollout needs to ramp up. She hopes non-tech-savvy older adults can work with primary care doctors and other community resources, such as Councils on Aging, without relying on frustrating online registration systems. She also hopes that people younger than 75 will begin to get vaccinated in a “matter of weeks.”
Should your kid double mask around grandma? We’re also hearing a lot about double-masking to protect against more transmissible variants, but Perkins says that compliance is more important than adding fabric. Kids especially are accustomed to masking at this point, and telling them to change their patterns and slap on one more layer might actually have the opposite effect — improper wear and poor adherence.
“I am strongly in favor of prioritizing fit and comfort over a double mask. If we were to now introduce double-masking to them, I think we would lose compliance significantly,” she warns.
So, will summer look normal? Camps? Trips? Going to the beach without bringing an electric-shock fence? That’s the million-dollar question, but take heart: “Masking requirements aren’t going away before summer, but vaccinations, warmer weather, and increased knowledge will make summer look more normal,” Perkins says. “The one caveat is that new variants may throw a wrench into it. I hope we can up our vaccination game. But, overall, I would say that I believe the summer will look significantly more normal.”