Now That Grandma Has Been Vaccinated, May I Visit Her?

By Matt Richtel

The start of a mass coronavirus vaccination campaign at U.S. nursing homes has brought hope to many families. But it may be a while before restrictions loosen. Here are answers to common questions.

Vera Leip, 88, of Pompano Beach, Fla., received the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine at the John Knox Village retirement community last week.
Vera Leip, 88, of Pompano Beach, Fla., received the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine at the John Knox Village retirement community last week.Credit...Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A watershed moment has arrived for many families: This week health care workers from CVS and Walgreens, under contract from the federal government, will fan out to nursing homes across the country to begin vaccinating residents against the coronavirus. The shots not only will help protect the nation’s elderly and infirm — and the staff who care for them — but they raise the prospect of ending the devastating isolation many residents have felt for months.

Family members are hopeful that before too long, they will return to visiting parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and other loved ones regularly again. We checked with experts on some common questions.

Probably not in a big way. Restrictions vary by state, and the federal government’s guidance on what it considers safe stands for now. They already allow visits under certain conditions. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, or C.M.S., recommended in September that outdoor visits with residents be allowed and indoor visits, too, if the facility has been free of cases for 14 days.

Some medical experts have said that those guidelines are too lax and that visits should be severely restricted, even banned. However, some of these experts are now saying that the vaccine changes the equation, somewhat.

“Once all residents are vaccinated, it opens the door for loosening of restrictions,” said Dr. Michael Wasserman, the immediate past president of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine, a geriatrician and former executive at nursing home chains.

To allow visits, Dr. Wasserman recommends all residents of a nursing home should be vaccinated (unless they have some condition or allergy that would discourage vaccination on medical grounds); all staff members should be vaccinated; and the nursing home should have the ability to ensure that visitors test negative for the coronavirus and have been disciplined about wearing a mask in public settings.

The clinical trials of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine included people over 65, and results showed it to be safe and to work as well in older people as in younger ones.

“This vaccine has gone through testing and clinical trials to ensure it meets the highest safety standards. It also is safe to get if you already had the virus,” says a campaign to encourage people to get the shots by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, a combined trade group representing nursing homes and assisted-living communities.

The lead administrator for C.M.S., Seema Verma, reinforced the confidence in the shot for older patients, including those with health conditions, in a statement last week: “I urge states to prioritize nursing homes and vulnerable seniors in their distribution of the vaccine.”

The point is echoed by Dr. Sabine von Preyss-Friedman, chief medical officer of Avalon Health Care Group, which operates nursing homes, who said the new vaccines appear “safe and effective.”

With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:

    • If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
    • When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
    • If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. Here’s why. The coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be enough protection to keep the vaccinated person from getting ill. But what’s not clear is whether it’s possible for the virus to bloom in the nose — and be sneezed or breathed out to infect others — even as antibodies elsewhere in the body have mobilized to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick. The vaccine clinical trials were designed to determine whether vaccinated people are protected from illness — not to find out whether they could still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of flu vaccine and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to be hopeful that vaccinated people won’t spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone — even vaccinated people — will need to think of themselves as possible silent spreaders and keep wearing a mask. Read more here.
    • Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection into your arm won’t feel different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects does appear higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. The side effects, which can resemble the symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and appear more likely after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest some people might need to take a day off from work because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headaches, chills and muscle pain. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is mounting a potent response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity.
    • Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell's enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both require two injections — the initial shot and a booster three or four weeks later. Dr. von Preyss-Friedman recommends waiting at least two weeks after the second shot to have a visit.

“You hope these vaccines work, but these are elderly patients,” she said. “You want to err on the side of protection.”

She said that, ideally, the visitor would also be vaccinated as well. Since shots won’t be widely available for a few months, it may be best to wait until you get your vaccine. Until then, she believes nursing homes should consider visits on a case-by-case basis.

Absolutely, medical experts said. This is particularly true if they are not vaccinated, but even after they are vaccinated “until rates in the community go down,” said Dr. Joshua Uy, a geriatrician and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and the medical director of Renaissance Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center, a nursing home in Philadelphia.

Dr. Uy said that he hopes that the federal government would supply enough personal protective equipment so that all visitors and residents could be properly gowned for such visits.

The combined nursing-home and assisted-living trade group has started a program aimed at helping nursing homes and other care facilities to explain to residents the essential need to get the vaccine. The campaign, #getvaccinated, notes: “The elderly population has a much higher risk for getting very sick, being hospitalized, or dying from Covid-19. The vaccine has been shown to provide a great deal of protection against serious illness due to Covid-19.”

But the people they love most may have more effective persuasive powers. Families can help, Dr. Uy said, by encouraging their parents and grandparents in nursing homes to get vaccinated.

“The vaccine,” he said, “is going to be our way out.”