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Are holiday gatherings safe during COVID-19?
November 17, 2020
Are holiday gatherings safe during COVID-19?

What to consider before celebrating the holidays with family and friends during the COVID-19 pandemic

The holidays are fast approaching – but what will they look like this year? Can we gather and celebrate the way we’re accustomed to given the current COVID-19 climate?

“The short answer is that gatherings with people outside your household are still not recommended,” says Emily Godbout, DO, MPH, pediatric epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist. “This is particularly true if the celebrations are being held indoors and the number of people doesn’t allow for safe social distancing of six feet. But, you can still make the holidays special and have fun with activities that help lower the spread of COVID-19.”

Missing out on seeing extended family and friends during the holidays can feel like another hit in a year filled with loss and disappointment, but across the country we’ve seen even relatively small gatherings turn into superspreader events. As with most milestones this year, precaution may need to outweigh tradition for the health and safety of loved ones. It’s really important to remember that family members can have COVID-19 and be asymptomatic, but share the virus with others who might become ill.

Here are some questions to think about when contemplating holiday plans.

How many people will be attending?

When more people attend a gathering, there is less opportunity for distancing and limiting contact. Make sure you’re aware of how many people are expected, as well as how much overall space is available to spread out.

Where are they coming from?

Are people coming from different areas of the state or country? Have there been high numbers of COVID-19 cases in those areas?

What have the COVID-19 numbers been in the area of the gathering, as well as in your community?

If the cases have been high in the geographical area of the gathering, consider the fact that your family may be at increased risk of catching the coronavirus there. Similarly, if you are traveling to an area with lower numbers than your hometown, you may be increasing risk for others.

Have attendees been adhering to infection prevention guidelines?

No matter where the attendees are coming from, do you know if they’ve been practicing social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands frequently and following the other guidelines put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? This is important information to have an understanding of your family’s exposure risk. Ideally, all attendees will avoid contact with people outside their households for two weeks before the gathering.

Will the gathering be inside or outside?

As the weather gets colder, more and more gatherings will be held inside which poses more risk than being out in the fresh air with plenty of space.

Will people be spending the night?

The longer the gathering, the greater the risk. Avoid spending the night if you can and limit sharing bathrooms as much as possible.

Are any of the attendees considered high-risk?

Will elderly grandparents be participating in the festivities? It can be tempting to take a chance and forego the recommendations to avoid gatherings – especially if your kids haven’t seen Grandma and Grandpa in a while. Keep in mind that older adults and people of all ages with compromised immune systems are at great risk of severe illness should they get COVID-19. Think about all of the potential attendees and whether or not they are considered high-risk, as well as what can be done to protect them.

If you choose to travel, be prepared to do so safely.

If attending your gathering involves travel:

  • Make sure you wear a mask over your nose and mouth when in public settings, such as airports, gas stations, restaurants and public restrooms
  • Refrain from close contact with others
  • Wash hands often
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Use disinfecting wipes to clean gas pumps
  • Bring hand sanitizer to use when soap and water aren’t available
  • Check with hotels about cleaning and sanitization practices

It’s important that you DO NOT travel if you are sick or have been around someone with COVID-19 in the past 14 days.

Holiday family gathering during COVID-19 pandemicThe holidays can still be special at home.

Staying home is the safest option. If you choose to go this route, you can still connect with loved ones:

  • Make favorite family recipes and have dinner together, virtually
  • Drop off or ship gifts for loved ones and have them open them on a video call
  • Make a slideshow of holiday pictures from years past and watch together via Zoom
  • Talk on the phone about what you’d like to do when it is safe to see everyone in person again

You can also start new traditions with the members in your household. Spend the whole day in your pajamas, make a food you’ve never tried before or come up with something else fun and creative that works for you. This holiday season may not be what we hoped for, but we can always look for the silver lining.

Don’t forget your flu shot!

COVID-19 isn’t the only virus-related illness to keep in mind over the holidays. Flu season has begun too! If your family members haven’t already gotten their flu shots, it’s not too late. The vaccine is updated every year to match the circulating viruses, so it’s important for anyone six months and older to get the flu vaccine annually. Dr. Godbout explains its safety and effectiveness.

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