Opinion: The new calculus of hugging amid COVID

Until most people have received their second vaccination, we must continue to remain careful about protecting ourselves from the virus.

Dr. Harry Rakowski 4 minute read June 8, 2021
hugging

If you've only had one vaccine dose, is it safe to hug your loved ones? Getty

One of the cruelest impacts of the pandemic had been the isolation that it has caused.

The heartbreak of critically ill people dying alone in an intensive care unit — their loved ones barred from being by their side — is only exacerbated by the stories from the nurses who hold their hands who describe the stress witnessing this isolation and loneliness.

We paused second dose vaccination for the elderly for 16 weeks, a shameful decision that increased deaths in this vulnerable group, even during the third wave, and extended the length of isolation. This age group has suffered the most, and continues to do so. Often their biggest concern is when they can see and hug their family again — Zoom hasn’t been nearly enough.

There is tremendous power in touch expressed with compassion and caring. It can reduce anxiety, increase endorphins, lower blood pressure and help improve mood. Touch is the most calming sense that we experience as an infant and continue to need  throughout our lifetime. I come from a family that expresses love by hugging and kissing. There was a long period of being afraid to see young family members for fear of becoming infected. Milestones were missed. The joy of playing with a grandchild had to be deferred. But vaccination has finally changed that dynamic. Hasn’t it? Is it now safe to finally hug your family?

Risks vs. benefits
The calculus informing our decisions has always been about risk/benefit. While over 65 per cent of adult Canadians have received partial immunity from one vaccine shot, over eight per cent have been fully vaccinated with two doses. Full vaccination rates will now climb rapidly with greater vaccine availability. But one has to consider the increasing number of variants that are now of concern. Does one dose of the vaccine determine relative safety from infection and a bad outcome?

The CDC has advised that fully vaccinated individuals in contact only with each other no longer need to wear masks. If you are fully vaccinated and don’t have a weakened immune system you are unlikely to get infected. You are also very unlikely to get seriously ill if infected. And in the infrequent event that you are mildly infected, it is unlikely you will spread a high enough viral load to infect someone else.

If you are fully vaccinated and around partially vaccinated people or children too young to be vaccinated, the decision is less clear. I am personally comfortable seeing my grandchildren without masks since it is low risk and tremendously satisfying. This becomes a personal decision which appears to be safer as daily case counts continue to fall.

If you are only partially vaccinated — as is the case for most Canadians — masks and distancing remain the better choice. Seeing family outdoors without masks with this level of vaccination has less risk, but is not without risk, and thus, will be an acceptable option for many people.

Ideally, get your second shot as soon as possible. While decisions to reopen the economy and relax some of the protection guidelines once 70 per cent of the population is vaccinated with a first dose — 20 per cent with two doses — is arbitrary, it will be an important milestone for a return to greater normalcy.

We need to continue to be vigilant until we have achieved high numbers of people who are fully vaccinated. Although the vaccines appear to be largely protective against variants of concern, we don’t know yet how long the protection will last — hopefully, for at least a year. Booster shots will likely be necessary at some point as we learn more about the rate of waning immunity, and the new variants that pierce that immunity.

Until then, find the right time and place to experience the joy of touch and reuniting with family. It might make you cry, but they will be tears of happiness.

Dr. Harry Rakowski is a Toronto-based academic cardiologist.

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