When Will It Be Safe to See My Grandparents Again?
It's still risky to see your grandparents, but doctors offer their tips for how to safely visit your elderly loved ones during Covid-19.
As states reopen and people start dining out at restaurants and getting their hair done in salons, I’m still having a tough time imagining a day when I’d feel comfortable being around people I love who are at higher risk of getting dangerously ill from Covid-19. Specifically, I think about my husband’s grandparents. They’re in their 80s, and they’re active, lively, and love spending time with their kids and grandkids. They still live independently—they even do yard work! They host family gatherings regularly at their homes. So, after three months of Covid-19 stay-at-home orders, they’re itching to see their kids and grandkids. And we want to see them too, of course, but not until it’s safe.
As the months of 2020 drag on and summer holidays approach, you may also be wondering: When will it be safe to see grandparents, older parents, aunts, uncles, and elderly friends again? The answer, like all things coronavirus-related, isn’t that simple.
Remember, elderly people are at higher risk for Covid-19
Elderly people are considered to be at a higher risk when it comes to Covid-19 because there’s a greater chance they will get more severely sick than a younger person, says Kathryn Melamed, MD, clinical instructor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica. While anyone of any age can die from Covid-19, statistically speaking, the mortality rate increases with age, Dr. Melamed says. “Experts don’t entirely understand why. It is true that as we age, the immune system wanes and a lot of diseases or infections are worse in elderly individuals,” she says. But part of it is also that older people tend to have more comorbidities, or conditions that can make symptoms even more severe, like obesity and diabetes.
As Bethany Panchal, MD, a primary care physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus, puts it: “Any time an old person gets sick, it’s bad.” That’s especially true when the sickness in question still doesn’t have a known cure or tried-and-true treatment. We’re still figuring things out with Covid-19, which makes it even more dangerous for an older person to contract.
By the way, there’s no strict age that makes someone “old enough” to be at high risk of coronavirus complications, says Dr. Melamed. The chance of mortality increases with age. So someone in their 60s is at greater risk than someone in their 50s, and someone in their 80s is at greater risk than someone in their 70s—and so on.
Also remember, there’s no known cure or Covid-19 vaccine
Yes, we’re a few months into this, but Dr. Melamed notes that nothing has really changed about the virus. “We don’t have any better treatments, though we are getting closer to some things that seem to be mitigating effects. But we do not have a cure and we do not have a vaccine,” she says. States are opening up, but people are still spreading the virus and getting very sick—in some states, cases have been skyrocketing.
What has changed is that we do know a little more about what we can do to minimize the spread of Covid-19. “We know it’s spread through respiratory droplets when someone sneezes and it gets inhaled into someone else’s body through mucous membranes,” says Dr. Melamed. Experts also believe that the virus can spread, to some extent, if you touch a surface upon which someone else with the virus left particles; if you then you touch your face, particularly your mouth, eyes, or nose, you could become ill. Though, Dr. Melamed notes, surface transmission doesn’t seem to be a major source of infection.
“Knowing all this, everything we do has incremental risk, unless we live in a bubble,” she says. So the big question you have to ask yourself is: What kind of risk do you want to take on for yourself and others? At the end of the day, everyone has to do what they are comfortable with.
Instead, stick to phone calls and video chats
If someone is elderly and has any comorbidities or chronic health conditions that would put them at an even higher risk, you’ll want to reconsider visiting, says Dr. Panchal. “Do you think you’re safe enough that they’re definitely not going to get sick? If they get sick, they could die, so you really need to think about that carefully.” Ultimately, if someone is at risk for multiple reasons, it’s best to hold off on visiting, Dr. Melamed says. Keep focusing on other ways to stay connected, like phone calls and video chats like Zoom.
Also, definitely don’t visit a nursing home or similar facility if you can help it, says Dr. Melamed. Different facilities have different policies on visitors right now, but if you can avoid being in an enclosed building where many at-risk people live, that’s best.
How to safely visit family members during Covid-19
So, what if your parents and grandparents are really healthy and live in their own home? In general, Dr. Melamed still can’t recommend or endorse visits to any elderly or at-risk friends or family at this time. But the risk/benefit of these visits is ultimately up to the individuals involved. If all parties deem a visit needed or necessary, she recommends taking some specific precautions to do it as safely as possible.
Stay home if you’re sick or have Covid-19 symptoms
A no-brainer at this point, but it’s worth repeating: If you’re feeling sick with symptoms of Covid-19, including fever, chills, shortness of breath, cough, runny nose, and/or sore throat, absolutely don’t go visit anyone, says Dr. Melamed. Stay home. Also, if someone you live with or are in close contact with hasn’t been healthy in the past two weeks, don’t visit an elderly relative. “We know [coronavirus] spreads really easily and sometimes we just don’t know if it has been spread to us,” says Dr. Panchal.
Assess your recent level of Covid-19 exposure
Even if you don’t suspect you’re sick, you’ll want to think long and hard about what the chances are you’ve been exposed to Covid-19 recently. Dr. Panchal says to think back about where you’ve been over the past few weeks and who you’ve spent time with. If you work in a high-exposure setting like a hospital or a grocery store where you’re around thousands of people each day, your risk of having the virus is much higher than if you’ve been working from home and diligently wearing a mask and hand sanitizer the one time a week you’re around other people during, say, your 30-minute trip to the grocery store. If you recently spent time with someone who you know later tested positive, consider yourself at high risk for exposure to the virus.
Think about how you’ll travel
Your relative or friend is a flight away? Not a good idea to visit just yet. Same thing if you’ll need to use any other form of public transportation. “There is a higher chance for exposure to the virus with this type of travel due to the close proximity in a small space,” says Dr. Melamed. “The safest mode of travel is in a car,” says Dr. Melamed. “If you need to get gas, wear a mask and wash your hands after touching the pump.”
Guidelines for the lowest-risk visit possible
If you have no signs of illness and you’ve determined your overall exposure level has been very low, the next step is to make sure your gathering has the lowest possible risk of transmission. Dr. Melamed suggests following these guidelines:
Keep 6 feet of distance
Wear a face covering
Wash your hands beforehand and after touching anything
Don’t share food
Don’t hug or do anything else that requires close contact
Dr. Melamed adds that the truth is, we don’t have robust studies on this. Doing all these things still probably won’t bring your risk of transmission down to zero percent, but she says that based on the information experts do have, “the risk of contracting coronavirus in that special set of circumstances is quite low.”
P.S. If you’ve tested positive for Covid-19 a few months ago, or recently found out you had antibodies, it doesn’t automatically mean you’re safe to go give your grandma a big hug. It’s still unclear if antibodies provide immunity, Dr. Melamed says, so you could still have picked up the virus again unknowingly and spread it to others. You’ll need to take the same precautions as everyone else during any social gathering.
- Kathryn Melamed, MD, clinical instructor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica
- Bethany Panchal, MD, a primary care physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus