The holiday season is here and with it comes a bounty of cravings. But this year it’s not the temptation of food that is challenging so many people, but rather a yearning for personal interaction.

In a year that has delivered more than its fair share of stress and uncertainty, many people are entering the holiday season with a deep longing for the comfort of family and friends. But the surge in cases of Covid-19 and the risks that come with travel and personal gatherings have raised questions as to whether these activities can be done safely.

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Celebrate Safely During the Holidays

December 10, 2020

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The holiday season is here and with it comes a bounty of cravings. But this year it’s not the temptation of food that is challenging so many people, but rather a yearning for personal interaction.

In a year that has delivered more than its fair share of stress and uncertainty, many people are entering the holiday season with a deep longing for the comfort of family and friends. But the surge in cases of Covid-19 and the risks that come with travel and personal gatherings have raised questions as to whether these activities can be done safely.

Any friends, family members or patients considering trips or group holiday celebrations should plan ahead and discuss those plans with others involved. Addressing the “new normal” as a group can ensure that everyone is on board with the ground rules, thereby avoiding awkward situations while promoting good health.

social-distancing-in-the-airport

Consider the Risks

Among the first considerations should be risks that increase the likelihood of getting sick or experiencing a severe bout of the illness. Older patients must take care, as advanced age is associated with higher levels of vulnerability.1 Likewise, certain health conditions can raise risk. These include, but are not limited to:2

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  Cancer
  Chronic kidney disease
  Type 2 diabetes
  Anemia
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

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Serious heart problems
Weakened immune system
Obesity
Sickle cell disease

.

Patients should talk to their doctors if they are unsure about their level of risk or need specific guidance regarding holiday plans.

 

Another aspect to consider is a community’s level of Covid-19 activity. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “High or increasing levels of COVID-19 cases in the gathering location, as well as in the areas where attendees are coming from, increase the risk of infection and spread among attendees.”

 

Patients can check local public health websites for regulations and warnings regarding gatherings and outbreaks. In addition, the websites for local newspapers often contain detailed information such as trends in new cases, test positivity levels and hospitalization rates, all of which may help a patient determine whether they will feel safe.

 

Finally, patients will want to give some thought to the types of encounters that they may have during an event or a trip.3

 

Keeping to smaller groups or limiting visits with multiple households lowers risk.
Avoiding interactions with people who have been traveling or socializing on a frequent basis keeps patients safer.
Engaging with people who do not wear masks raises risk.

Keep Visits Safe

Anyone joining a holiday group celebration or taking an out of town trip can take precautions to increase safety. Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institute of Health recommends three simple strategies:

 

Wear a Mask

Recent studies have shown that masks, worn properly, can reduce the spray of droplets when worn over the nose and mouth. Furthermore, masks can provide protection to the wearer as well. To be effective, masks should fit snugly with no wide gaps and be made of tightly woven breathable material.

 

Watch Your Distance

In terms of social distancing, the 6-foot rule is a good standard, but patients should consider adding extra space if they find themselves around people with vulnerabilities or in an area that isn’t well ventilated. The CDC also recommends avoiding loud conversations and singing.

 

Wash Your Hands

A simple but effective way to prevent the spread of germs, hand washing should be frequent and thorough. Wash hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.

Wearing masks at the family table

Keeping the bulk of activity outdoors will also improve safety. The availability of high tech sportswear designed for warmth may make it realistic for some patients to spend more time outdoors. If that’s not feasible, the CDC recommends opening windows and doors to increase indoor ventilation or running air conditioning and heating on continuous circulation.

In short, a good rule of thumb is to keep gatherings small and short in duration. The greater the contact with larger numbers of people, either directly or indirectly, the higher the risk. Additional steps toward safely hosting or attending gatherings can be found on the CDC website.

Travel Sensibly

Even under normal circumstances, holiday travel can be taxing. Before planning a trip to another region, it is always a good idea to check on possible quarantine regulations. Some states, such as Hawaii, have implemented rules regarding pre-travel testing programs and quarantines.

 

Determining the best method of travel can be perplexing. In this season of social distancing driving is among the safest methods of travel. Patients driving their own vehicles, alone or with others from their household, have more control over their environment during travel. It is also a good idea to limit stops and bring food rather than buying it along the way.5

 

Those considering air travel can take heart in a recent report from public health experts at Harvard University stating that the combination of onboard ventilation systems, social distancing, use of masks at all times and regular sanitizing results in a very low risk of coronavirus transmission on airplanes.6 Patients may also want to check with their airline to understand specific seating arrangements, as well as any policies that may be in effect.

 

A bigger challenge may come in navigating the airport, where lines and a lack of private space may hinder social distancing efforts. To heighten safety patients should:7

 

  Be sure to keep a mask on at all times, covering the nose and mouth.
  Avoid anyone who appears sick.
  Follow the TSA instructions, which have been updated for safety.
  Limit contact with frequently touched surfaces.
  Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer.

 

Undoubtedly, the holidays of 2020 will be unlike any others that patients have experienced. Luckily for those hoping to fulfill their urge to celebrate the holidays with some sense of normalcy a number of helpful websites offer additional considerations, risks and preventive strategies. For more information, check out:

 

•  Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
•  Mayo Clinic
•  Transportation Security Administration (TSA)

Footnotes:
1 “Older Adults and COVID-19.”Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 27, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/older-adults.html
2 “People with Certain Medical Conditions.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 2, 2020,  www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-with-medical-conditions.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fneed-extra-precautions%2Fgroups-at-higher-risk.html
3 “Holidays.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 27, 2020,  https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays.html
4 “Considerations for Wearing Masks.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 12, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover-guidance.html
5 “Travel During Covid-19.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, October 21, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/travel-during-covid19.html
6 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Assessment of Risks of SARS-CoV-2 Transmission during Air Travel and Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions to Reduce Risk. Phase One Report: Gate-to-Gate Travel Onboard Aircraft.” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 2020.
7 “Coronavirus Travel Advice.” Mayo Clinic website, Mayo Clinic, October 22, 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-safe-travel-advice/art-20486965

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