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Is it safe to hug a friend or loved one at this point in the pandemic?
TORONTO -- For those who have been adhering to physical distancing recommendations during the COVID-19 pandemic, socializing only with those in their immediate household, hugging a friend or loved one is top of mind as provinces begin to relax restrictions.
Hugs, one of the most instinctive expressions of comfort, affection, connection, and support, have been denied to many of us since the beginning of the outbreak.
But for those who may be in need of a hug most -- older adults and grandparents, or those with pre-existing health concerns, front-line workers and more -- may have to bide their time through the pandemic alone a bit longer.
At this stage in the pandemic, experts say the current reality is that physical affection remains a “do at your own risk” activity.
In fact, those who study infectious diseases agree that several safety precautions should be taken to protect even the healthiest individuals who choose to hug.
That means forgoing the long, lingering hug with a friend you haven’t seen in months, the kiss on the cheek you would normally give your elderly mother, or a giggle-filled moment between grandchild and parent is still out of the question.
Instead, masks should be worn during short hugs where you face away from each other, with some experts even going as far as to suggest holding your breath.
HOW COULD COVID-19 BE SPREAD THROUGH A HUG?
Experts say there are two ways the virus could be spread between people during a hug: through droplets or physical contact.
“When you’re hugging you’re relatively close face-to-face. Between breathing, talking, coughing, sneezing, or anything else that could happen during that hug, you could be expelling droplets,” Zain Chagla, infectious disease expert at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., told CTVNews.ca by phone.
“Even if nothing happens during the hug, if there is [virus] on the hands and you touch the other person, then they touch their mouth, nose, or eyes, then that theoretically could spread the virus person-to-person.”
WHAT IS THE REAL RISK?
Chagla says the odds of an infected family member spreading the novel coronavirus to those in their immediate household remains around one in five. But exposing yourself to those outside of your immediate household presents new risks.
“A single event is probably low risk, but it’s not zero risk,” he said. “We are going to be living with some risk to anything that we do walking outside of our front door, basically. This may be one of those events that… if it’s an emotional support that benefits people it’s unlikely to cause harm.”
Chagla says, in many cases, a brief hug with the proper precautions could be less risky than a long conversation with a friend where you may not maintain proper distancing the entire time.
“It’s not risk free, but there are acceptable risks, similar to getting into a car and driving,” he said.
But not all experts agree, especially when it comes to who you are hugging.
“Hugs are high on the risk level. So far as long as they can be avoided, they should be avoided,” said Matthew Miller, a McMaster University professor studying the novel coronavirus, told CTVNews.ca by phone.
“Any time you come in really close physical contact, that’s when you massively increase your risk of spreading the virus. People have been told to avoid shaking hands -- and a hug is definitely riskier than a handshake.”
Miller notes that, as much as we may crave affection, it’s increasingly important to weigh the risks before engaging in physical contact.
“As much as you want to give your grandparents a hug, especially if they’re older and have underlying health conditions, it probably isn’t worth the risk… the guilt you would feel if they got seriously ill or, God forbid, died certainly outweighs that hug,” he said.
Chagla agrees that grandparents and those at high-risk of contracting and developing severe cases of COVID-19 should be off limits.
But a brief hug between two healthy, low-risk people could be facilitated with some cautious planning.
WEAR A MASK
The first caveat both experts agreed upon is the need for masks.
Before you hug, make sure you wash your hands and put on your mask in advance. Miller notes that you should, preferably, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer immediately after hugging someone to remove any particles transferred to your hands.
Keep your embrace brief, and return to a proper distance of two metres apart when finished.
FACE AWAY FROM EACH OTHER
Instead of embracing each other with your faces pressed together or turned inwards, both experts suggested turning your heads away from each other for an extra layer of protection.
“For the average person, turning your head isn’t a bad idea. It’s not 100 per cent, depending on the air flow direction, the droplets could still come to you. But those are easy interventions to minimize the risk,” said Chagla.
HOLD YOUR BREATH
Though it's an extreme measure, Miller notes, scientifically speaking, that holding your breath may prevent you from shedding droplets while breathing -- though you should still be wearing a mask.
SHOWING AFFECTION BEYOND A HUG
Miller adds that any activity that can be done outside -- hugging included -- reduces the risk of transmission due to air circulation. If you don’t feel safe showing physical affection, Miller suggests taking advantage of the nicer weather and spending time, physically distanced, with friends and family.