I remember more than a year ago when I first became aware that hugging a friend was possibly risky. Since then, it has been a hugless year. I feel especially bad for patients in nursing homes. For them, the last year has been one of feeling only gloved hands and seeing masked faces.
Touch is very important. It provides comfort, support, and connection. A hug can lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. A hug is an affectionate way of touching. As a son of immigrant parents I know that some cultures are more reserved. But there are also other ways of touching that convey warmth: an arm around the shoulders, a pat or rub on the back, a squeeze of the arm, a touch on the elbow, a handshake. These are all ways of sending a message: I see you, I’m reaching out to you, I support and respect you, I like you.
The year of no hugging is over. With the high level of vaccination, touching AND hugging are generally ok, IF you are vaccinated. 68% of all seniors in the United States are fully vaccinated. Evidence is now very clear that vaccination results in a dramatic decrease in the risk of spreading, contracting or becoming seriously ill with COVID. Once vaccinated, seniors are 94% less likely to be hospitalized.
There IS a “but”. The risk of a hug is higher if the hug is given by someone who is not vaccinated. Although the risk is much less, vaccinated seniors can still come down with COVID from someone who is infectious. Frail seniors, especially those with multiple chronic conditions, are more likely to do poorly with COVID, the flu or any other serious infection.
Vaccination rates vary widely across the United States and within different communities. If you, your family, and friends are vaccinated, hugging is quite safe. If your family or friends are not vaccinated, hugging is a larger risk, even if you are vaccinated. I’m vaccinated and my patients are vaccinated. They’re happy when I give them a hug. It gives them hope, support and healing warmth.
With a big virtual hug from me. And remember to wash your hands frequently and avoid crowds.