Medical Minutes

The Immunized Class: Those Over a Certain Age

This is going to be a special St. Patrick’s Day for 76-year-old Julie Siderfin. She will be fully immunized against COVID-19 (14 days past her second shot) and so she plans on celebrating with her family and friends, something she couldn’t do last St. Paddy’s Day. “It pays to be old for once,” said Siderfin.

As more and more adults over age 65 are becoming fully immunized, they are seeing a reversal of sorts. They are in a unique situation where they are in a better position to offer help to younger family members, neighbors and friends. “To the extent that schools have not fully reopened, (fully immunized) grandparents can contribute to the care and education of their grandchildren.

They can also re-engage in volunteer activities and increase their church attendance,” said professor Eva Kahana of Case Western Reserve University. Some older adults had friends and neighbors shopping for them during the past year. Now vaccinated, they can return the favor.

Normal life will return only gradually, as it will require that all age groups be immunized. Readjustment for older adults after the pandemic may be challenging for some individuals. Having lived for a year with the threat of life-threatening illness, it may take time for many older adults to regain a sense of security. Some older adults may experience what is known as “survivor guilt.”

Life after Vaccination: How Safe is it?

Being immunized is an important way to keep yourself safe, but vaccines do not allow you to drop all other public health precautions to prevent COVID-19. While full immunization should help prevent a person from developing severe illness or being hospitalized, transmitting the virus to others is still a concern. Social distancing, handwashing and mask-wearing are still required. “This is not only for your own health, but even more for the health of others,” said Bernard Davidson, associate professor at the Medical College of Georgia. “We are not sure about the transmission potentials of any variant forms of the virus that have mutated,” said Davidson. “Don’t think because you have been immunized that you can’t carry or transmit the virus.

This advice is not intended to “spoil the party” but rather to remind all older adults there is more that can and needs to be done to help stop the spread of COVID. Many people may want to travel immediately and see their kids, grandkids, other relatives and friends they have missed this past year.

“Rather than focusing on making up for the year you lost, I think it would be more helpful for you and yours to reflect on how grateful you are to have remained healthy and to look forward to getting closer to the time you can safely engage in activities,” he added.

Can Fully Immunized Adults over Age 65 Have Dinner Parties?

If all are fully immunized, it seems like it would be fine to have a dinner party with seven or eight friends. However, that may not be such a great idea, according to Dr. Mariah Robertson, who is with Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “While I wish that it were as simple as saying yes to this, but the vaccines aren’t perfect and it remains important to wait on the big gatherings until community spread and numbers are lower,” said Dr. Robertson.

It should be okay to gather with three or four other fully vaccinated people for a meal, but you should avoid large numbers of people in an indoor space because that can increase the risk of COVID spread. “I think we will continue to learn more and our thoughts around this might change but this is what I am advising my patients for now,” said Dr. Robertson.

For many older people, getting vaccinated allows for addressing long-neglected personal needs. They can be more comfortable getting a dental cleaning, an annual mammogram, and an in-person visit to primary care physicians. The American Cancer Society is calling on all adults to resume cancer screening and treatment during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Cancer centers are taking multiple measures to protect patients and staff from COVID-19 and transmission within cancer centers is quite unusual. Dr. William G. Cance, Chief Medical and Scientific Officer of the American Cancer Society, said it is of the utmost importance that critical cancer screenings resume as soon as safely possible.

It is important to feel some freedom in this time, so a hug with a friend who is also vaccinated is considered fine, a human connection in a way that has not been feasible up until now. Dr. Robertson said vaccinated older adults, can now feel more comfortable going out and doing activities like grocery store trips. “It isn’t a pass to go out in big gatherings, particularly with community rates as high as they are and the more infectious variants of the virus spreading, but it is a pass to liberalize a bit of the connecting that we have been starved of for the past year,” he added.

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at medicalminutes@gmail.com.