Too soon to hug: How to safely interact with vulnerable family

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Hugging and kissing family members is instinctual, but still dangerous, an infectious disease physician said as more gatherings are allowed to resume in Michigan.

On Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer moved Michigan into phase 4 of the six risk phases linked to coronavirus. In that phase, the stay-at-home order is lifted and gatherings of up to 100 people are OK as long as they are outside and precautions like social distancing are followed.

When it comes to high-risk individuals, whether they are friends or family, Dr. Liam Sullivan of Spectrum Health said it is still important to take precautions, starting with assessing your overall health.

“People older than 70, generally speaking, are in the highest risk age group, regardless of their health. Obviously, if you don’t feel well, it’s not a good idea to be around them at all,” Sullivan explained, adding that it is still important to keep between 6 and 10 feet apart, even if you feel healthy.

Sullivan also recommended washing your hands frequently and thoroughly and wearing a mask, especially if you’ll be in close proximity to others.

Anyone who works in the health care field or a profession that gives them regular contact with the general public should opt for video visits, rather than in-person visits, with high-risk individuals or meet outside in the fresh air, following all of the previously mentioned recommendations.

Annie Young is a single grandparent who runs her own business and also takes care of her two grandchildren full time as their guardian. It’s impossible for her to “socially distance” from them and the risk weighs on her.

“The thing that’s always at the forefront of my mind is that I can’t get sick. I have two little kids that depend on me. There’s no room for the coronavirus in their life. If something were to happen to me, I don’t know what would happen to them,” Young said.

Though only in her 50s, she has a blood disorder, putting her at high-risk for a severe case of COVID-19. Her business KBoose advocates for and offers assistance to seniors, those with disabilities and families with children. Her grandchildren occasionally have to go with her on work-related trips.

“We always have hand sanitizer and have started meeting clients outside their homes, getting a shopping list from and them and leaving (groceries) at their door,” Young listed.

Even for those who work from home and limited contact with others, Sullivan still advises against touching, hugging or kissing anyone outside their home, as difficult as that may be. The “million-dollar question,” he noted, is when it will be safe to do those things.

“There are two scenarios. No. 1, everyone gets vaccinated, which automatically gives us what we call herd immunity. Two, the virus just sort of burns through the population and we get herd immunity from people getting infected,” he explained about when it might be OK to have close contact.

A third possible scenario also involves immunity, but there is little evidence to support the amount of immunity a person might have after fighting COVID-19 and that information won’t be available for another four to five months, around the same time doctors expect a vaccine to be in wide use.


There is no question that human interaction is important. We’ve never had to do this before where we distance ourselves so much from those we care about — the last pandemic even close to coronavirus in scale, the Spanish flu, was a hundred years ago.

But there are ways to safely have those interactions outside your immediate family, Sullivan said. He recommended visiting with one family at a time and letting several days pass before spending time with another family in your “close circle,” a method similar to the “social bubble” recommendation from other doctors.

“A friend of mine has two kids and I went over to his house a couple about a week ago,” Sullivan said. “We sat outside, had chairs apart from one another and had a drink and socialized. It was very nice to actually see them. And then, about five days later, I did the same thing with another family.”


It may seem impossible to keep kids socially distanced, and Sullivan said that’s OK, as long as you have them wash their hands well after playing with friends.

He also recommends limiting their interaction with other adults if they’ve been spending time with other children in the neighborhood, especially vulnerable adults.

“The thing with kids is you have to try to limit their circle as much as you can, and when you see those other families, just say, ‘Hey, no hugging and kissing’ … and try to limit their really close contact with the people who are more at risk,” Sullivan said.


Once a vaccine is available there are still questions about how effective it will be and for how long. The influenza virus, for example, has very poor quality when it replicates, causing it to constantly mutate, which is why there is a new vaccine every year.

Doctors still don’t know how quickly the virus that causes COVID-19 will mutate or how many vaccinations the general public will need.

“Even after the first vaccine comes out, they’re probably going to be doing very close follow-up studies on people and then watching the virus and how it interacts with humans on a year-to-year basis,” Sullivan said, adding it may be unclear for several years.