Ruth Alcantara stepped closer to her grandmother. Then closer, and closer still. She crossed into the 6-foot buffer zone that had separated them for so long and wrapped her arms around the older woman.

"Hi, Grandma, I missed you so much," she said, inches from her grandmother's ear.

As more Americans are vaccinated against COVID-19, reunions among loved ones are becoming increasingly frequent and, for many, hugging is the main event.

First routine, then forbidden and now precious, hugs have come to symbolize the next phase of the pandemic, our emergence from the isolation of the past year. Hugs can't be given from 6 feet away.

Alcantara and her grandmother live a 25-minute drive apart in California's San Fernando Valley and saw each other every Saturday before the pandemic. But they hadn't been in the same room since February 2020.

When Alcantara graduated from high school last spring, she stood on her grandma's front porch in her cap and gown so her only living grandparent could see her through the window. They have tried to talk on the phone, but it's difficult because of her grandma's poor hearing.

But by April 3, her grandmother's 95th birthday, Alcantara had been fully vaccinated. They could safely embrace.

The hug was long and familiar, Alcantara said. Her grandma was sitting in her favorite chair like she always had. She didn't look any older.

"It felt like time hadn't really moved, but I know so much time has passed," said Alcantara, 19. "Just putting her head over my head, I just felt so warm and so loved."

People who declared themselves non-huggers before 2020 say they've been transformed by a year of "touch deprivation." Some friends are going so far as to plan hug dates.

Most humans crave physical touch from friends and family and feel they need it to maintain their close relationships, experts say. Hugs are a way of saying hello, offering support, asking for love, sharing joy and communicating emotions that may not be neatly translated into words.

"There's a lot more going on than, 'Let me just put my arms around you for a second or two,' " said Kory Floyd, a University of Arizona professor who studies how affection is communicated in close relationships.

Floyd said that humans desire physical touch because they associate it with safety and security. Studies have found that touch can ease feelings of pain, lift moods, reduce symptoms of dementia and even improve the immune system.

Touch starvation, on the other hand, can trigger anxiety and depression, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite and reduced resilience to cope with tough situations, he said.