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Holidays During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Making Difficult Choices and Lowering Your Risk

Today's Medicine

Published: Nov. 13, 2020

 

In a year of sacrifice and separation, we’re quickly approaching some of our most difficult choices yet: what to do about Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah. 

The holidays couldn’t be happening at a worse time in the COVID-19 pandemic. Cases in our region and most of the country are out of control, with no possibility of decreasing enough for us to have risk-free traditional holiday celebrations. Thanksgiving is coinciding with hundreds of thousands of students returning home from college campuses, where outbreaks have been rampant. Add in pandemic fatigue, and the picture gets even bleaker. We even have a cautionary tale from our friends to the north: Canada has seen a spike in cases that’s directly tied to its Oct. 12 Thanksgiving celebrations. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that the lowest risk Thanksgiving celebrations include having a small celebration with only those in your immediate household or having a virtual gathering with those outside your household. The same will likely hold true for Christmas and Hanukkah. 

To some, these recommendations may sound cold. What about people who live alone? What about older adults desperate to see their children and grandchildren? What about those with chronic conditions who don’t know what 2021 brings? 

There are no easy answers. Families and friends across the country will have to make holiday decisions that are right for them while balancing what is right for their communities, health systems and frontline health care workers. 

 

How to Lower Your COVID-19 Risk at Holiday Gatherings

If you do choose to gather with those outside your household for the holidays, there are ways to minimize your risk of being infected with or spreading COVID-19. 

Before the gathering:

  • Keep the guest list as small as possible with as few people from different households as possible. The more people at your gathering, the more likely at least one person present will have COVID-19
  • Try to quarantine for two weeks leading up to the celebration. If that’s not possible, limit your contact with others as much as you can. 
  • Get a COVID-19 test shortly before. Remember that this is a snapshot in time, and it’s still possible for you to get infected before the gathering. College students should be tested before returning home. 
  • If you’re traveling somewhere a few hours away or less, consider making the visit a day trip rather than an overnight stay.
  • Communicate with each other. You need to know if your sister is taking risks you’re uncomfortable with. Your parents need to know if you woke up Thanksgiving morning with a sore throat. Be prepared to cancel the gathering if someone is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or was exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. 
  • Get a flu vaccine. 

At the gathering:

  • Wear a mask when not eating or drinking, even if others aren’t. If you’re hosting, have masks on hand for those who didn’t bring them. 
  • Wash your hands upon arrival, and continue washing or sanitizing your hands throughout the gathering. Avoid touching your face.
  • Keep at least 6 feet of social distance from those who are not in your household. Remember that the guidance is masking and social distancing. 
  • Sanitize your hands before and after using serving utensils. Better yet, have one masked person serve food for everyone.  
  • Try to have as much of the gathering outside as possible. 
  • Have a shorter gathering than you normally would to cut people’s exposure time. 
  • Pay attention to ventilation. If you’re in a private home, open windows. If it’s cold outside, turn up the heat and use space heaters to counter the cold. Don’t turn on overhead fans. Do turn on bathroom exhaust fans. 
  • Use paper towels to dry your hands instead of shared hand towels. 
  • Be mindful of alcohol consumption. Alcohol can alter your judgement and cause you to let your guard down. 

After the gathering:

  • Quarantine again for two weeks if possible. Limit your contact with other people. 
  • Get a COVID-19 test a few days after the holiday. 
  • Keep in touch with those who were at the gathering. If you begin feeling COVID-19 symptoms within 14 days, notify the host so they can inform the other guests. 

 

Sacrificing for Each Other

Whatever you decide to do for the holidays, have those conversations now to prevent confusion and pain later. This also gives you time to plan alternative celebrations if you choose to stay home. Miss your extended family on Thanksgiving? Have a big virtual call together where you all share what you’re thankful for. Did your daughter choose to stay in Chicago for the holiday? Eat dinner at the same time on video chat and then play games together. Are your kids begging to see Grandma and Grandpa? Bundle up, bring them a pie and safely gather outside for a couple hours.

The holidays have to look different this year. Sacrifices need to be made to stop the spread of COVID-19, prevent chronic conditions caused by the virus and to save lives. A vaccine is on the horizon, but until then, we can do the work now to keep each other healthy and help our frontline health care workers. 

And if there are people in your life making different choices than you? Be respectful and give each other a little grace. You might have a hard time understanding why your son won’t come home, or you might think your sister is making a mistake taking her kids to see your mother. Everyone is making difficult decisions. And after the holidays are over, we’re still going to need each other.  

 

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Rudolf Kotula

About the Author:

Dr. Rudolf Kotula is a board-certified infectious disease physician. He specializes in areas such as antibiotic resistance, travel medicine and infection prevention.

You can visit Dr. Kotula at Methodist Physicians Clinic Regency.

See More Articles by Rudolf Kotula