How to ask family and friends if they’re vaccinated before holiday gatherings

November 2, 2021 in Wellness  •  By Miles Varn, MD
vaccinated

As the winter holidays approach, people are hoping to make up for the togetherness they missed during last year’s holiday season because of the pandemic. Much has changed since last year’s holidays and even since COVID-19 vaccines first became available last winter:

  • Vaccines: Everyone 12 and older has been eligible to be vaccinated for some time now. And the FDA announced an emergency use authorization for use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in children ages 5 to 11 last week. Children would receive a dose that contains a third of the active ingredient that an adult dose contains. Currently, the vaccine series would include two shots, three weeks apart. Now that the emergency use authorization is in place, the CDC is expected to make recommendations and provide guidelines for vaccinating children in this age group. The Moderna vaccine is still under review for this age group, with a decision expected early next year.
  • Booster shots: For those who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, the FDA has approved and the CDC recommends that several groups of people get a booster shot of the vaccine six months or more after their initial series of vaccines. The groups include people 65 and older, people 18 and older who live in long-term care settings, people 18 and older with certain underlying medical conditions, and people 18 and older who work or live in high risk settings, such as healthcare workers, teachers and school support staff, first responders, food and agricultural workers, people who work at or are in correctional institutions, and people living in shelters. For people 18 and older who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a booster is recommended two or more months after the initial series.
  • Mix and match boosters: The CDC says that it is safe and effective for people who are eligible for a booster shot to receive any one of the three approved COVID-19 vaccines as a booster, regardless of which shot they received for their initial series. This advice is supported by a recent preprint study that included nearly 500 people. The study found that all three vaccines increased the level of COVID-19 antibodies in the blood, regardless of whether the person received the same vaccine as their initial series or a different one.
  • Third and fourth full-strength shots for people who are immunocompromised: In August, a third shot of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines was recommended by the CDC for people who are immunocompromised, including those who’ve received a solid organ transplant, people living with HIV and other immunodeficiency syndromes, and cancer patients undergoing treatment that compromises their immune system. Last week, the CDC recommended a fourth shot six months after the initial series of three shots, which would serve as a booster, for this group of people.

Because recommendations are continuing to be updated, talk with your primary care physician or health advisor to learn about any updates to this guidance.

How to ask about vaccination status

To help make dinners and parties with family and friends safer for all, it’s wise for everyone who can be vaccinated against COVID-19 to have received both doses of vaccine and any appropriate boosters at least two weeks before the gathering. Since many holiday events revolve around eating and most take place indoors, being vaccinated provides important protection when masks are off and air circulation is limited.

But how do you know if the people you’d like to include on your guest list are fully vaccinated? The only fool-proof way to know is to ask. Of course, some friends and family may be skeptical about the vaccines and may have chosen to remain unvaccinated. Some may have very strong feelings about vaccination, so asking the question may not as simple as saying, “Are you vaccinated?”

To help start a positive, productive discussion to find out whether your potential guests are vaccinated, try these strategies:

  • Assess your personal risk tolerance. If you and the other members of your household are fully vaccinated, you have significant protection against a serious breakthrough case of COVID-19 and hospitalization in most cases. Are you comfortable spending time indoors and unmasked with guests who aren’t vaccinated? Would risk mitigation steps like asking guests to avoid situations where they are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 for a week before your event or asking all unvaccinated guests to get tested before the event lower the potential risk to an acceptable level for you?
  • Check the level of community spread. Gatherings that include unvaccinated people from areas with high levels of community spread of the virus can carry an increased risk. Before making your guest list, check the prevalence of COVID-19 in the counties where your guests live and consider tailoring the list for this year to lower the risk.
  • Don’t wait until the guests are on your doorstep. Talk with guests at least three weeks before the planned event so you can either adjust the guest list or make changes that will help you feel comfortable if any guests aren’t vaccinated, like moving your event outdoors or requiring masks when not eating or a negative test before the event.
  • Approach the subject with respect and empathy. We’ve all seen the viral videos of people getting into shouting matches about COVID vaccines and masking. The best way to avoid confrontation and hurt feelings when asking family and friends about their vaccine status is to approach the discussion with respect and empathy for their position, even if you disagree with the choice they’ve made or know their reasons for avoiding vaccination aren’t supported by the scientific evidence. If people want to know why you’re asking that only people who’ve received their vaccine attend, explain your reasoning without judging other people’s choice.
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