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Navigating the Holidays During COVID-19

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

It’s been a long 9 months of social distancing and spending time apart from friends, family, and loved ones. With the holiday season upon us, many families are looking forward to cooking and gathering with long-distance relatives. However, this is no normal year. With cases of COVID-19 skyrocketing throughout most of the country, many experts are advising people to nix their holiday plans altogether. So, should you cancel your Thanksgiving Day plans? And, if you don’t, is there a way to gather safely? Here’s everything you need to know.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The official recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is to cancel any plans to travel and gather with people you don't live with. And for good reason as of November 24th, there are now close 5 million active cases and 250,000+ deaths, according to data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project. Cases are growing by nearly 200,000 per day (or over a million per week) and hospitalizations for COVID-19 are also at the highest of the year, currently at 85,000+. Mass cross-country travel and gathering with people outside your household will only exacerbate current trends, especially since the CDC now says asymptomatic transmission is fueling morec cases.

Still, despite the growing risk, about 40 percent of Americans recently surveyed in a study by OSU’s Wexler Medical Center say they plan to gather in groups of 10 or more people this holiday season. The majority (33%) said they would not even require friends or family to wear masks while visiting. Those numbers were validated by air travel this past Friday, when over 1 million people passed through TSA screening checkpoints at U.S. airports.

Dr. Mark Horne, President of the Mississippi State Medical Association, warns that there's real risk of putting relatives in jeopardy this year.

Can’t I Just Get a Test?

Not necessarily. Just because you take a negative test right now doesn’t mean you won’t be positive in one or two days. The Coronavirus has a somewhat long incubation period of up to 14 days. So there really is no way to be 100 percent sure you don’t have the virus unless you test the day of or adhere to a strict 2-week quarantine before you go. It's probably not feasible for most people to do that.

Testing is a great tool that should absolutely be used, but getting a test before you go doesn’t negate the exposure to everyone else along the way. If you can’t quarantine, HuffPost recommends to get tested twice; once before you leave, and then again a few days later.

If You Decide to Gather, Follow Safety Precautions

While the CDC recommends not traveling, here are some tips to follow if you do decide to travel and gather with people outside your household.

Assess Your Risk: Here’s a COVID Risk Tool that can show you cases in your county and your risk of getting infected based on how big of a group you plan to gather with.

Check Travel Restrictions Before You Go: Many countries borders are still closed to American travelers, so check restrictions first before you leave to make sure you don’t get turned away.

Get Your Flu Shot. We wrote an article on the importance of this here.

Wear a Mask. Stay 6 Feet Apart. Wash Your Hands. Not to beat a dead horse here, but please continue to do the usual safety things that we all have memorized by now. Along with this, clean and disinfect surfaces often.

Limit Your Guests. Usually it’s “the more the merrier.” But not this year. The less people you have at your holiday gatherings, the more you decrease your risk of spreading the virus.

Open Windows or Dine Outside. Al fresco dining is usually reserved for the summer months, but in this case you might want to open some windows and doors to keep the air moving. Better yet, move your entire celebration outdoors if you can.

While it’s clear that some people are going to travel for the holidays this year, it’s never too early to start building new traditions. After all, every family tradition has to start somewhere. Even if we don’t like it, staying home this holiday season will help control the spread of COVID-19, and it will go a long way toward enjoying “normal” end-of-year festivities in 2021.

Further Reading:

Staying Home? Try These Ideas for Virtual Thanksgiving

What 635 Epidemiologists Are Doing for Thanksgiving

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