Welcome to COVID Questions, TIME’s advice column. We’re trying to make living through the pandemic a little easier, with expert-backed answers to your toughest coronavirus-related dilemmas. While we can’t and don’t offer medical advice—those questions should go to your doctor—we hope this column will help you sort through this stressful and confusing time. Got a question? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, E.B. in New York asks:
My parents and in-laws will hopefully be vaccinated soon. My husband and toddler and I don’t expect to be vaccinated for quite some time. How should we think about whether it’s safe to spend time together in a mixed-vaccinated group? Could they get on a plane and fly to visit with us unmasked and indoors? Or is there enough risk that we should wait until we are all vaccinated (which may be a very long time especially with children in the mix)? Or split the difference and take some precautions?
To state the obvious, we are in a strange limbo state right now. The vaccines we’ve eagerly awaited for almost a year are here, and yet…nothing about our daily lives has really changed. Unfortunately, that’s going to be the case for a bit longer.
“The end is in sight,” says Dr. Colleen Kelley, a vaccine researcher and associate professor of infectious diseases at the Emory University School of Medicine in Georgia. “I just don’t know that it’s right now.”
Your loved ones getting vaccinated is unequivocally a step forward, Kelley says. It would certainly be safer to visit with your parents or in-laws after they’ve gotten both vaccine doses, but the safest plan is to wait until you and your husband are also vaccinated, she says.
The two coronavirus vaccines currently authorized for use in the U.S.—those made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna—are both extremely effective at preventing people from getting sick with COVID-19. That’s a huge benefit on its own, especially for people at high risk of severe illness, such as elderly adults and people with underlying medical conditions.
But the outstanding question is whether COVID-19 vaccines also stop people from getting asymptomatically infected with the virus. Early evidence suggests both shots offer at least some protection against asymptomatic infection, and many experts are optimistic about their chances of stopping transmission, but the data are still coming together.
If the shots turn out not to stop asymptomatic infections entirely, even your vaccinated parents could feasibly get your family sick if they picked something up while traveling to see you. Or, if you happened to be exposed to the virus, your parents could potentially carry it and pass it to others. And, while the authorized COVID-19 vaccines are very effective, there is always a tiny chance of them failing, leaving your parents at risk of illness.
These are all worst-case scenarios, of course. But given the uncertainty and the extent to which COVID-19 is still spreading in the U.S., Kelley says you should wait a little while longer to visit with your parents and in-laws. If that’s not possible, you should take the same precautions you’ve been hearing about for a year: quarantining beforehand, and ideally staying outdoors and masked when possible.
Here’s the good news, though. Once you and your husband are fully vaccinated (along with more of the general population), Kelley says you can feel much better about spending time with other vaccinated people indoors and unmasked—even if your toddler isn’t yet vaccinated.
As you suggest, it may be a while before kids younger than 16 are eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, since pharmaceutical companies haven’t yet finished testing their shots on younger children. But “if the toddler is the only one who’s not vaccinated, I would say that’s a pretty darn safe scenario,” Kelley says.
Luckily, young kids rarely get seriously ill with COVID-19, so once all the adults in the room are fully protected, Kelley says you can feel pretty comfortable with your parents or in-laws coming for a visit.
“We’re not going to get to a zero-risk situation,” Kelley says, “but we are going to get to places that are safer and safer.”
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Contributor: Jamie Ducharme