With the holidays fast approaching, many of us are eager to see loved ones and desire a small reprieve from the months and months of social isolation. It goes without saying that we will have to modify and make adjustments to the traditional ways in which we celebrate the holidays this year. I am frequently asked by my patients if they can attend holiday gatherings and to provide them with information on tips for holiday safety. According to the CDC, small household gatherings are a major contributing factor to the rise in COVID cases we are seeing throughout the nation.
As much as we yearn to see our beloved family and friends, it is simply not completely safe to attend holiday gatherings–particularly for those who are at increased risk of complications related to contracting this virus. If you must travel, take into consideration the rates of community spread of the infection in your destination city. However, one should avoid travel all together to communities in which there are increases in cases of COVID-19 transmission. You can review the local transmission rates of your destination city by checking the destination state’s health department website site.
Avoid large gatherings all together. These gatherings are typically in enclosed areas where there is diminished air circulation and all guests at some point will have to remove their masks to eat or drink. Furthermore, laughing, singing, or speaking loudly causes a greater force of air expelled; hence more respiratory droplets are expelled in the air. And with more circulating respiratory droplets in a small enclosed space, the greater the risk of exposure for all who are gathered for this event. Please also keep in mind that anytime you attend a gathering with people who are not immediate members of your household, there is an increase in the risk of transmission of COVID-19.
Nevertheless, be of good cheer! We can still share in the love, laughter and merriment of the holiday season in different and creative ways this year. These are a few recommended tips to stay safe during this holiday season:
1. Avoid air travel unless it is necessary. There are too many touch points throughout the airport resulting in unnecessary exposures to the virus circulating in the air and on hard surfaces. This precaution also applies to bus and train stations and all public travel spaces
2. Avoid all large gatherings period
3. Avoid small holiday gatherings with anyone except with members of your immediate household who are known to consistently practice safety measures
4. Avoid holiday gatherings with family members or friends outside of your household—this only invites new opportunities for virus spread and transmission
5. Hold virtual celebrations with family and friends and be creative with games and fun activities
6. Wait until everyone has left the room or common space before blowing out candles (to decrease spread of virus in expelled respiratory droplets)
7. Deliver holiday meals and desserts at the door of loved ones, friends, and neighbors
8. College students should practice strict social distancing in the 14 days before traveling home for the holidays and ideally should be tested before returning home from college. In addition, they should wear a mask and socially distance themselves from household members until negative COVID 19 tests have resulted
9. Avoid in-store shopping during crowded peak holiday shopping times like Good Friday and the ensuing days thereafter. Use online shopping options and curbside pick up of groceries and gifts
10. Get your flu vaccine to avoid co-infection with coronavirus and the seasonal flu or to avoid subsequent sequential infections of these viral illnesses
The following groups of people should avoid in person holiday gatherings:
• Persons with weakened immune systems
• The elderly
• Persons with chronic medical conditions (such as: asthma, diabetes, heart disease, COPD, kidney disorders, etc.) that put them at increased risk of hospitalization from a COVID-19 infection
• Anyone with symptoms of COVID 19
• Anyone waiting for COVID-19 test results
• Anyone exposed to someone with COVID 19 within the past 14 days
• Anyone who lives in the home with someone who meets the criteria listed above
Everyone wants to rejoice and celebrate the holidays with festive activities. However, do not lose sight on what is important which is your safety and the safety of your loved ones. My best advice is to please consider STAYING AT HOME this holiday season and celebrating the holidays with members of your immediate household only. Remember: we may have to make the sacrifice of not seeing our loved ones this holiday season in order to remain healthy so that we can see our loved ones during the next holiday season.
Constance M. Gistand, MD, MPH, FACP
Professor of Clinical Medicine
LSU School of Medicine