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Is it still too risky to hug? We answer that question and more

LULU NAVARRO-GARCIA, HOST:

If you're not a hugger, the pandemic has been the perfect excuse to never hug again. But for those of us who like to hug, the pandemic has felt cold, isolating. Even now, with so many vaccinated the delta variant can cause breakthrough infections. So we wanted to know, is it OK to hug? What about handshakes and kisses? We turn now to NPR health editor Marc Silver to answer those questions.

Hello.

MARC SILVER, BYLINE: Hello, Lulu.

NAVARRO-GARCIA: So is it risky when both people are vaccinated?

SILVER: Well, first you have to remember how you catch COVID. If someone is infected, they'll breathe out respiratory and aerosol droplets that can transmit the virus, so close contact like a hug can be risky. But vaccination brings that risk way down. So even if you're in contact with someone who's vaccinated and has been infected without knowing it, that person breathes out far fewer infected particles than someone who's not vaccinated.

NAVARRO-GARCIA: Wait a second. It sounds to me like you're saying for vaccinated people, hugging isn't very risky.

SILVER: Well, it comes down to a phrase we're hearing a lot during the pandemic - level of risk. What level of risk are you OK with? For example, is the person you're hugging someone who works in health care or a school, where they're exposed to lots of other people? In that case, you might decide to pass because their risk of exposure to coronavirus is higher. The risk is also greater for people who are immunocompromised. And it's worth thinking about where you'll be hugging - indoors or outdoors. Indoor hugs are riskier because outdoors, the moving air helps disperse infected particles.

NAVARRO-GARCIA: Right, we've all had this weird, awkward moment, though, right? When we see someone we haven't seen for a long time and we're not sure how they feel about hugging - I do this weird, awkward dance where I kind of put my hands up in the air and kind of like shimmy to see (laughter) if they want to hug or not. It's embarrassing. I mean, what is the etiquette these days?

SILVER: I'm not sure I'm going to try to shimmy, but the new etiquette is state your preferences. Don't just go in for a spontaneous hug. You could say, hey, I'm vaccinated. I'd love to give you a hug. Are you vaccinated, too? And on the other hand, if you know that that person just got off a six-hour flight or went to an indoor concert, it's fine to say - let's just mask up first.

NAVARRO-GARCIA: What about the kids who are too young for a vaccine? You know, they're huggers. They need hugs.

SILVER: If kids are involved, check with their parents. Is it OK if I hug your kid? Or if you're the parent, ask, is it OK if my kid hugs you?

NAVARRO-GARCIA: So we heard a lot about the death of the handshake at the start of the pandemic. You know, everyone was doing those elbow bumps, kind of like a chicken dance. Are they still risky?

SILVER: Let's say I have a breakthrough infection and I don't know it, and maybe I sneezed or coughed in my hand. So you reach out your hand, I reach out my hand and touch you, and then you're going to take your hand to your face inevitably because we touch our faces many, many, many times a day without even knowing it. So there is an element of risk. If you do handshake, you might want to hand sanitize right after. Although one professor I interviewed told me she feels safer with the elbow bump because you'd have to be a pretty talented contortionist to bring your elbow to your eyes, nose or mouth.

NAVARRO-GARCIA: I come from a culture where you actually kiss people on the cheek to say hello. It is very common among Latinos to just say hello and go mwah (ph) on the cheek. I'm assuming that that is probably not going to be OK.

SILVER: Well, when COVID was peaking in France - and, you know, the French are big, big cheek-kissers. The president urged people to give up cheek kissing, but now he's rescinded that. I believe he's cheek-kissed in public. A cheek kiss is pretty quick. You'd have to actually wipe where someone kissed you on the cheek. You'd have to take your hand, wipe that spot with your hand and bring your hand to your mouth or nose, so not high, high risk. But then there's the air kiss. In an air kiss, you're blowing air in someone's face. Don't do it unless you're blowing the kiss from across - oh, I don't know - a football field.

NAVARRO-GARCIA: This is great advice. I send you air kisses, Marc Silver. That's NPR's health editor and curator of the global health blog "Goats And Soda."

Thank you very much.

SILVER: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.