An acquaintance you haven’t seen in ages approaches and reaches out to shake hands. What should you do in this age of lingering COVID-19 safety concerns?
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Let’s start with a reality: The handshake situation is going to feel awkward when it first happens to you. Protocols over the past year called for avoiding contact and maintaining six feet of distance – guidelines that don’t encourage pressing the flesh.
But with much of society re-emerging from its pandemic cocoon, you’re bound to face an outreached hand in the near future. That simple act will force a split-second – and to some a terrifying – decision.
You can shake off your social rust with confidence if you’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19, according to pulmonologist Akhil Bindra, MD. He says vaccinated people have “little to no risk” of getting the virus through the casual contact of a handshake.
Updated guidelines for people with COVID-19 vaccinations
Ongoing changes regarding social dos and don’ts reflect the impact of COVID-19 vaccines, says Dr. Bindra. Vaccinations offer protection against the virus while slowing the spread of the disease.
New recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or practicing social distancing, except under certain circumstances.
You are considered “fully vaccinated” two weeks after receiving a single-dose coronavirus vaccine (Johnson & Johnson) or the second dose of a two-dose vaccine series (Pfizer and Moderna).
Dr. Bindra says emerging data shows that vaccinated individuals have less of a chance of contracting COVID-19 than they would of picking up a flu bug in a normal year.
“The key here is being vaccinated,” explains Dr. Bindra. “That is where the path begins on the return to normal. It’s how you can get back to living life the way you remember and feeling safe while doing it.”
Restoring a sense of normal
Bring back traditions and interactions such as shaking hands represents an important part of the pandemic recovery process, notes Dr. Bindra. “It’s a return to feeling human after a year of living in fear,” he says.
The ritual of shaking hands dates to ancient times. It originated, some say, as a way for those crossing paths to indicate peaceful intentions – primarily by showing that they weren’t holding any weapons.
Over time, the gesture evolved into a symbol of good faith (seal the deal), a greeting (meet Bob from accounting) and the topic of countless etiquette books (how to give the perfect handshake).
“Shaking hands again is a milestone,” Dr. Bindra says. “It’s a very real-world thing.”
Find your comfort level
But don’t feel pressure to return a handshake if you’re not ready. People will understand given the past year. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with a fist bump, which has been proven to transmit fewer germs than the traditional handshake.
Be smart, too: If the person looking to shake hands is coughing or showing signs of being ill, take a pass. (That rule applies in any circumstance, pandemic or not.)
Also, the rules of good hygiene still apply. That means washing your hands regularly and spending 20 seconds on the lather and rinse. (Dr. Bindra says people should make it a practice to wash their hands whenever they return home from an outing.)
Hand sanitizer continues to be in vogue, too. You may want to consider keeping a small bottle handy as an extra precaution during the day.
What if you have not been vaccinated for COVID-19?
When it comes to handshakes, non-vaccinated individuals should keep their hands to themselves. “Nothing has really changed for you,” says Dr. Bindra.
For those who have not been vaccinated for COVID-19, the CDC continues to recommend wearing a mask that covers your mouth and nose while in public and staying six feet away from other people.