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When can I see my extended family after being vaccinated for COVID-19?

Family members from different households will soon be able to gather safely, but experts advise caution while the vaccine rollout continues.
Illustration of family gathering wearing mask with big vaccines next to them
The main question on most people's minds: When can I see my family again?TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Many families have spent the last year apart from each other due to the coronavirus pandemic, but there's hope that people not from the same household will be able to gather soon as vaccines become more readily available.

Once everyone in a family is vaccinated, experts say that it should be safe for people to gather, but it will be several months before the vaccine is readily available to the general public to vaccinate.

It's also important to remember that the vaccines take some time to be effective: The doses have to be taken several weeks apart (21 or 28 days depending on the vaccine), and it takes about two weeks after the second injection for the vaccine to be fully effective against the virus.

"That would be safe, if everyone in the family has been vaccinated," said Dr. Colleen Kelley, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia who is involved with the Moderna and Novavax vaccine clinical trials. "I think the issue is it's going to be a long time before we get to the place where all members of a family are vaccinated, especially if it's a multigenerational family with grandparents and little kids and adults. But I think once we get to the place where everyone in the family is vaccinated then yes, they should feel free to see each other freely."

Dr. David Buchholz, the senior founding medical director for primary care at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, said that seeing just a few family members could be safe — for example, if two vaccinated adults visited two fully vaccinated grandparents, that could be relatively safe, but the larger a circle gets, the larger the risk becomes.

"The odds are that yeah, you can go and actually visit," he said. "The odds of you both being unlucky and both not getting (protection) from the vaccine and having the virus at that moment is so incredibly small that I think you can safely do that, but if that family gets bigger and bigger, you increase the odds that one of those people could actually bring the virus into the home."

While both vaccines are estimated to be 95% effective, Buchholz said that with the amount of virus circulating in the country currently, even that 5% chance can be risky.

Another complicating factor for some families is that the vaccines have not been authorized for use in children: Right now, the Pfizer vaccine has been authorized for use in people over the age of 16, while the Moderna vaccine has been authorized for use in those over 18. Children can carry COVID-19 so they could be a risk to others in the group, especially if not everyone has been vaccinated.

Experts advised that most people should continue to take precautions, like seeing relatives outside or in a well-ventilated space, practicing social distancing and wearing masks until more of the population is vaccinated.

"I think it's fair for people to gradually, not immediately, but very gradually, begin to liberalize their activities," said Dr. Anne Liu, clinical associate professor of infectious diseases at Stanford Health Care in California. "It doesn't mean we're going from 0 to 60 miles per hour ... I would still advise some caution, going step by step and starting to remove some of the most stringent guardrails that your family may have had, but try to keep some still in place."