When COVID-19 first turned the world on its head in early 2020, a lot was still unknown. As we learned more about the virus, medical guidance changed. And as vaccines became widely available, the guidance changed yet again.
But a stall in vaccination rates caused the virus to mutate. In response to these new, virulent strains, medical guidance—you guessed it—changed again.
In year two of the global pandemic, it can be difficult to know what to do to protect ourselves and others.
I reached out to medical professionals for their opinions on a question that is frustratingly nuanced. Is it safe to see your unvaccinated friends in person?
What Does ‘Safe’ Mean During A Global Pandemic?
I previously said “frustratingly nuanced” because there is no straight answer. It’s difficult to define “safe” while in the middle of a global pandemic.
“There are no absolutes,” Tamsin Nicholson, a researcher for UK pharmacy Dr. Felix, explained. “Everyone must decide what risks they are willing to take as we move forward. There is no way to remove all risk completely.”
The virus is learning to adapt just as much as we are. “Almost two years after the spread of COVID worldwide, we are facing a more infectious variant of the virus,” Dr. Sanfra El Hajj of MyMSTeam.com said.
“With these new variants, we are witnessing a bigger number of infections and hospitalizations that are no longer age-specific,” El Hajj continued. “What used to be the pandemic of the elderly is now a pandemic of everyone.”
Plenty of reputable research finds the COVID-19 vaccines to be incredibly effective in preventing severe illness and death. A vaccine isn’t a guarantee that you won’t get COVID-19. But your chances of surviving a virus that has already killed over four million people is far higher.
So technically, no one is 100% “safe” from infection. And when you dive deeper, it becomes even more complicated.
You’re Vaccinated, They’re Not (Or Vice Versa)
In this situation, the vaccinated individual is “safer” than the unvaccinated. Even if the unvaccinated person has already had COVID-19, the vaccines provide greater protection.
Victoria Swift, M.D., said that while a vaccinated person carries antibodies that can neutralize the virus, “there is a possibility of carrying the virus to [those] who are unvaccinated that may put them in danger.”
To best protect your unvaccinated loved ones, Swift suggested some health protocols.
“When traveling to [their] houses, especially when using public transportation, always use masks that cover your nose and mouth,” Swift said. “When you get to their houses,” Swift continued, “get a shower first. If this is not possible, change your clothes and disinfect any exposed area of your skin. If you can, try to keep your mask on.”
However, vaccine status is not the whole picture. Nicholson added, “You must also consider the likelihood that an individual has COVID. Vaccines contribute to this. But social behaviors, symptoms and tests should also inform your decision.”
“If you are meeting someone unvaccinated who has had a recent negative test, recently self-isolated or perhaps rarely mixes with others, then the chances of them having COVID is lower.”
Neither Of You Are Vaccinated
“The riskiest situation is when unvaccinated people get together,” Dr. Jaydeep Tripathy said. “In this situation, both parties don’t have any form of protection.”
Vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals do seem to carry the same amount of virus in their bodies once infected. So, the rate of transmission appears to be the same. Still, this situation is far more dangerous.
Erica Susky, an infection control practitioner, explained why.
“If [an unvaccinated individual] acquires SARS-CoV-2, they are at a greater risk of getting a more severe form of COVID-19 and complications of the disease.”
Better Safe And Healthy Than Sick And Sorry
There are many factors at play—vaccinations, personal habits and whether or not someone is immunocompromised or otherwise at high risk. It may feel like splitting hairs, and that’s because it is. COVID-19 doesn’t care about convenience.
Therefore, it’s best to follow health protocols no matter what. This guidance is, of course, subject to change, but it’s better to be safe and healthy than sick and sorry.
In general, Susky explained, “outside visits are much safer than indoors as there is much more air circulation. If possible, both people should wear masks at all times and perform frequent hand washing. If masks are removed, it should be minimized. At least six feet should be maintained between people.”
Susky continued by saying it’s best to avoid “sharing meals and sharing foods.” Tripathy also advises against “hugs or cheek kisses. And, as much as possible, still avoid handshakes.”
“All activities,” Susky clarified, “should not occur if anyone feels even mildly ill. In people with mild COVID-19, I have seen them attribute their mild symptoms to allergies. It can be that hard to tell.”
Mourning the loss of hanging out with friends and the comfort of going mask-free is tough. But many of us can tell you from experience that mourning the loss of someone you love is much tougher.
Mask up, get vaccinated and stay safe.