Can You Safely Hang Out with Unvaccinated Friends?

Vaccination provides strong protection against severe disease, but you might want to mask up in certain situations.

Can You Hang Out With Unvaccinated Friends?
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If you enthusiastically vaxxed up partly out of a desire to be social again, you weren't alone—catching up with friends in real life was one of the initial perks of COVID-19 vaccination.

But vaccination rates in the US fell short of expectations (you can check your state's vaccination rates on the CDC's vaccine tracker site). What does that mean for Sunday brunches, backyard barbecues, and other activities if you're vaccinated but your friends or family members are not? Is it still OK to hang out?

Here's what public health officials and experts in infectious disease and emergency medicine said about what's safe and what precautions you may want to take.

I'm Vaccinated. Can I Hang Out With Unvaccinated Friends?

Ultimately, the answer may depend on your health, the health of others around you, and your risk tolerance.

"If you're fully vaccinated, most interactions are quite low-risk for you," Paul A. Thottingal, MD, a Seattle-based physician and infectious disease leader with Kaiser Permanente, told Health. "But you may want to know about other people's vaccination status to help think through how you can make activities as low-risk as possible for everybody," said Dr. Thottingal.

That may mean masking up if you're spending time at an indoor venue, like a bar or restaurant, or meeting up outdoors instead. "Out in the open air, I think you're OK," said Dr. Thottingal.

Megan L. Ranney, MD, professor of emergency medicine at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, would err on the side of caution.

"In general, if I were to hang out with an unvaccinated friend, I would only do so outdoors or when masked," Dr. Ranney told Health. Although the vaccines are "marvelously effective," Dr. Ranney wouldn't want to risk acquiring a breakthrough infection, much less transmit the infection to an unvaccinated child or parent.

William Schaffner, MD, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, recalled "very complicated discussions" he had with families who wished to have small visits with frail family members, often older persons. The family, for example, may have been quite careful, though not rigidly so, and the children may or may not have been vaccinated. "And I say get together with the family and figure out what the ground rules are that everyone's comfortable with before the visit," said Dr. Schaffner.

Dr. Schaffner also suggested teaching kids how to keep grandma and grandpa safe by keeping masks on during the visit and hugging their grandparents around the waist—once when you arrive and again when you depart—then backing off.

If you're having friends over who have unvaccinated kids, Dr. Thottingal suggested that everyone in the house mask up. "It's easier to support the kids if everybody's wearing a mask without singling them out," said Dr, Thottingal.

In "hot spots" where the virus is circulating, it may make sense to take extra precautions.

"People assess their own risk tolerance," reasoned Dr. Schaffner. For example, at one point, seventy-seven percent of Vermont's 18-and-older population was fully vaccinated, versus just close to 48% in Tennessee, per the New York Times. At that time, that would have put those in Vermont into a different situation compared to those in his state of Tennessee, said Dr. Schaffner.

One more suggestion: If you're meeting up with a friend who's unvaccinated, Mirella Salvatore, MD, an infectious disease specialist assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, suggested using the opportunity to talk about vaccination. "Try to understand why they don't want to get vaccinated, or maybe you can share your experience with the vaccine," said Dr. Salvatorre.

"We have to think globally—not only for ourselves," said Dr. Salvatore, but for the community at large.

Do I Need To Wear a Mask To Hang Out With Unvaccinated Friends if I'm Vaccinated?

When the world opened back up in 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) assured fully vaccinated folks that it was OK (with a few notable exceptions) to resume pre-pandemic activities without masking up or physically distancing. That's because the vaccines had been shown to be highly effective against severe disease due to the virus that causes COVID-19, including variants.

"At their best, the vaccines are 95% effective in keeping us out of the hospital," Dr. Schaffner told Health. And while health experts initially thought that if you were fully vaccinated, you couldn't become infected with COVID-19 or pass it on, they had to change that status when it become clear that breakthrough infections were possible.

All that's to say that vaccines do go a long way toward keeping vaccinated people protected. "But they're not perfect," allowed Dr. Schaffner. And that's where other mitigation measures, like masking, may come into play.

I'm Vaccinated but Immune-Compromised. Now What?

If you've been vaccinated but your immune system is weak because of a medical condition or medications you're taking, the CDC recommends that you take additional precautions, such as wearing a mask in indoor public places, unless advised otherwise by your doctor. While the COVID-19 vaccines reduce the severity of the virus, people who are immunocompromised may not be protected, even if they are fully vaccinated, the CDC notes.

If you have reason to believe your immune system is compromised, you shouldn't forgo masks because you don't want to expose yourself to any risks, said Dr. Salvatore.

"Being vaccinated is a great thing but doesn't make you Superman," said Dr. Salvatore. "Mostly with these variants that are more transmissible, you want to be extra cautious if you think that you have any disease that you might not mount a perfectly good immune response."

Dr. Schaffner offered similar advice. If you think the vaccine may not be providing optimal protection, "sure, wear a mask, and to the degree that you feel comfortable, do social distancing," said Dr. Schaffner.

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