Can Older Adults Visit Family After Getting a COVID-19 Vaccine?

Older hispanic woman receiving a vaccine from a nurse.

Hispanolistic / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Older adults are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine first.
  • COVID-19 vaccines do not guarantee complete immunity to the virus.
  • While you can reunite with your family once everyone has been vaccinated, safety precautions will still need to be taken.

The COVID-19 vaccine is finally rolling out, with people who live in long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities, receiving the vaccine first (alongside healthcare workers). As some parts of the country begin approaching phase two, allowing for the vaccination of those aged 65 and older, many are wondering when it'll be safe to see family again—especially grandparents.

The answer to that is complicated, according to health experts. While the vaccine does offer protection against COVID-19, it doesn't ensure complete safety. Experts say even after vaccination, people will need to take safety precautions.

What This Means For You

The COVID-19 vaccine's full efficacy isn't realized until a full week after the second shot, so it's important to be patient. Once you or your family is immunized, take necessary precautions: stay outside if you can, wear a mask, and socially distance as much as possible. Nursing homes and care facilities will follow federal and state guidelines on how to reopen safely.

The Vaccine Protects Against Most Severe Cases

Both the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccines have efficacy rates over 94%, but even with this high percentage of immunity, vaccinated people could still contract COVID-19. According to Ramin Ahmadi, MD, MPH, chief medical officer for GMED Global LLC, the vaccine protects against the worst infections.

"One week after getting their second vaccine dose, your grandparents will be protected against the severe form of the COVID-19 infection, and you can visit them at home with some precautions," Ahmadi tells Verywell via email. "Think of the vaccine like this: the vaccine transforms COVID-19 into a common cold. You can still catch a mild common cold and pass it along. By building up the immunity of the body, the mortality due to COVID-19 will decrease."

Once older adults and high-risk patients are vaccinated, Ahmadi expects the pandemic to slow and look more like a seasonal cold or influenza.

Can Vaccinated People Still Transmit the Virus?

Lessening the severity of the virus is very important, but unfortunately, much is still unknown about whether the virus can be transmitted from vaccinated people to unvaccinated people.

Alyssa Billingsley, PharmD, director of strategic program development at GoodRX, tells Verywell via email that the potential risks are still high, just not for the person that has received the vaccine.

"We don’t fully know yet whether or not you can still transmit the virus after getting vaccinated," Billingsley says. "So it is still possible for your grandparents to catch the virus from another family member during the visit, and they may be able to transmit the virus to you, too. It is important to keep in mind that although the risks are reduced, they aren’t zero."

Proceeding With Caution

Older adults in assisted living and nursing homes have been hit hard by the loneliness and isolation brought on by quarantine and lockdown measures. With vaccinations, there is hope that centers can start to ease restrictions and allow visitors again.

The American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) tells Verywell via email that as state and federal restrictions ease, they are excited to welcome visitors back. Outreach programs to family members have already begun in many places, educating people on what's safe as the situation changes.

"We are extremely optimistic this vaccine will expedite the reopening of our facilities to family members and loved ones," a spokesperson for AHCA/NCAL says. "However, all of us are going to have to remain vigilant, even after the vaccine. That means continuing to wear masks and socially distance."

Currently, nursing home regulations are set by both federal and state governments. While states cannot weaken federal guidelines, they can go further, which some have done in areas where the virus has spread uncontrollably.

When Will It Be Truly Safe?

Experts agree that until herd immunity is reached, there is still a risk to gathering in person. However, there are also risks to mental health for seniors who feel isolated in care facilities and at home. Billingsley says that using the established safety protocols is key to stay safe and still nurture mental well-being.

"Understanding the risks and planning ahead are key before visiting your grandparents," Billingsley says. "For now, you should assume that everyone is at risk of getting infected and possibly getting sick. You’ll want to wear masks and social distance, at a minimum. Outdoor activities are preferred over indoor activities, if possible. And it may be a good idea to have everyone quarantine beforehand and get tested to further manage the risks."

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Rachel Murphy
Rachel Murphy is a Kansas City, MO, journalist with more than 10 years of experience.