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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Handshakes were one of the first habits to go when the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, but with vaccination rates rising, you may find yourself confronting an outstretched hand again soon.

Why it matters: Whether firm or floppy, handshakes were a near-universal greeting in the West for strangers, business contacts and casual acquaintances. As people emerge from their pandemic shell, it's worth considering the act again — or picking up a new habit.

Handshakes may have emerged as a way to demonstrate to people we didn't know that our intentions were friendly and that we weren't carrying any weapons.

  • But like any form of personal contact, they can spread disease, whether directly through skin-to-skin touching, or simply by bringing two people in close proximity.
  • “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you,” Anthony Fauci said on a podcast last April.
  • A 2014 study found that handshakes transmitted nearly twice as much bacteria as a fist-bump or high five.

Yes, but: As you already may have noticed by its gradual reemergence as vaccination coverage expanded, "the handshake is hard to replace," says Joe Keohane, author of the forthcoming book "The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World."

"Touch and eye contact trigger oxytocin, which bonds people together. And the mechanics of the thing — that mix of vulnerability and tentative trust that go into a handshake — are by design a really good way to start an interaction with someone you don't know."
— Joe Keohane

Between the lines: If both you and the person you're shaking hands with is vaccinated, there's very little risk of contracting COVID-19, the infectious disease specialist William Schaffner told CNN recently.

  • Of course, you may not know a stranger's vaccination status, and even if you are vaccinated, it won't protect you from flus, colds, and other viruses that are set to come back with a vengeance.
  • If that worries you, there are other greeting options that involve little or no contact, like a fist bump or the namaste gesture, which governments in East Asia promoted after the 2003 SARS outbreak.
  • And not everyone loves handshakes — in a 2017 study, female doctors observed no-handshaking rules in a neonatal intensive care unit at higher rates than male doctors.

The bottom line: We may be outgrowing the handshake, but we'll never outgrow our need to connect with each other.

Go deeper

Sep 25, 2021 - Health

A second flu

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Whatever living with the virus looks like, Delta-level surges aren't considered to be sustainable for the public or the hospitals that will treat the seriously infected.

Why it matters: A major determinant of how seriously we'll take the coronavirus in the future is how many hospitalizations and deaths it's causing — and whether our health system can handle the load.

Sep 25, 2021 - Health

Long COVID: A disabling disease

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Millions of Americans are still suffering from a wide spectrum of symptoms long after they've recovered from their original coronavirus infections, and it's very unclear what the disease's trajectory is — or even how many people are affected.

What we're watching: We still don't have a good grasp on how susceptible vaccinated people are to long COVID. If the condition remains a threat even for the vaccinated, that could shape the risks people are willing to take in the future.

Sep 25, 2021 - Health

Montana VA medical center to treat non-veterans amid COVID surge

Billings Clinic in Billings, Montana, on Nov. 11, 2020. Photo: Lynn Donaldson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A veterans medical facility in Montana is planning to accept non-eligible patients as a COVID-19 surge overwhelms nearby hospitals in the state, CNN reports.

Why it matters: The move underscores the dire health situation in Montana due to the latest COVID-19 case surge, where some hospitals in the state have started to consider rationing care, according to the Montana Free Press.