Ready to holiday? Before you gather with family and friends, think about COVID-19 safety
Although many people skipped traditional family gatherings during last year's holiday season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they're craving a bit more normalcy this year.
Is it safe to do our holiday traditions this year?
We asked Dr. Brian Metzger, medical director of infectious diseases at St. David’s HealthCare; Dr. Meena Iyer, chief medical officer at Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas; Dr. Suneet Singh, medical director for CareHive Health; and Dr. Stanley Spinner, vice president and chief medical officer at Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care, for their tips for safe holiday celebrations.
Is this year different than last year?
Yes, for sure, they all say. Last year we didn't have anyone vaccinated at Thanksgiving and only essential health care workers had received one shot by Christmas.
"We didn't have the level of immunity in the community," Metzger says. That's both immunity from the vaccine and from having already had the virus. Hold on to your tinsel: This still isn't a normal year.
Everyone will choose how to celebrate based on their own comfort levels, Spinner says, but "I don't think it's still going to be completely like it was before," he says.
Can I gather with my family?
Ideally, everyone gathering would be fully vaccinated, meaning two shots for Pfizer and Moderna, one for Johnson & Johnson, and two weeks past that. And those who qualify for a booster shot because of increased risk of severe disease or because they had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine two months before will have had the booster.
"Vaccination is our No. 1 method to prevent severe disease and hospitalization and death, which we don't want to arise from a family gathering," Metzger says. "We've seen that much too often here at the hospital."
Think about who is in your household. What have their habits been? Have they mostly been at home or have they been working or socializing in crowded spaces?
People who are immune compromised or otherwise at risk for severe disease might not want to risk the gathering even if they are vaccinated.
"There's almost like a calculation you have to make based on who is coming, what their vaccination status is, where they are coming from, is anyone high risk for severe disease ... those are all the nuances to the calculation you need to make," Metzger says.
How to be safer during holiday gatherings
If you do gather for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year's or other events, Metzger says, there are ways to do it more safely.
Keep it smaller with only a couple of households instead of a large gathering of 20 or 30 people.
Think about doing more things outside rather than inside if possible. Allow for social distancing, encourage frequent handwashing and don't share utensils.
Consider wearing masks when in close contact with someone indoors that you don't live with normally.
Cancel plans if anyone is sick or has been around someone who is sick.
"We still have to be cautious even if we're vaccinated," Iyer says. "We can have some breakthrough infection."
What about the children?
Teens 12 and older who are vaccinated are a different story than kids 5 to 11 or 4 and younger.
The 5 to 11 age group could have one vaccine in by Thanksgiving and two in and fully vaccinated by Christmas. If that's the case, Christmas becomes a safer gathering event than Thanksgiving.
The 4 and younger crowd won't be vaccinated in time. Kids still can have severe illness, be hospitalized, be in the intensive care unit and even die from this disease. They also could spread it to their relatives, including those who are immune compromised or otherwise more at risk for severe disease.
The risk for the unvaccinated such as children does go down the more vaccinated people they are around, Metzger says.
Vaccinating kids:What you need to know about children and COVID-19 vaccines
What about the college kid coming home?
Know your kid. Is your kid vaccinated? Does your kid wear a mask everywhere they go? Then you have the ideal kid to come home safely without much concern. However, if you know that your kid hasn't been vaccinated and/or doesn't wear a mask, you might want to have your kid take a COVID-19 test before coming home or wear a mask at home.
Again, it's based on their risk level as well as your own risk levels.
Consider the current COVID-19 levels
Iyer says if this had been September or August, when there was a surge of COVID-19 cases and we were out of ICU beds in Central Texas, there would be no way she would even consider a family gathering.
Right now, though, cases are low, (we're heading to stage 2), which makes doctors more comfortable with smaller gatherings with safety precautions.
Things can change. Think back to what happened in 2020.
We had a summer surge and numbers were falling in October. Then, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas all added to a new surge, which is what we don't want to happen this year.
It takes a couple of weeks between exposure, illness and hospitalization. By Thanksgiving, we'll know what effect Halloween had on our COVID-19 numbers.
Keep track of what's happening locally by looking at Austin Public Health's COVID-19 dashboards. Also keep track of the COVID-19 levels where relatives who are visiting might be coming from. If they are seeing a surge in cases where they live, you might want them to stay there.
Can we travel?
Yes, it's safe to travel if the COVID-19 rates where you are coming from and going to are still low. Wear a mask while in transit in public places such as airports. Wear a mask in places like hotel lobbies. Don't travel if you have any symptoms that could be COVID-19 or any other respiratory illness.
Should we test before we go or after we come home?
"It's not a bad idea," Singh says. You want to test three to five days after returning to allow for the incubation period to have happened and there to be enough virus to show up on the test, he says.
Can we go to a Christmas tree farm, or a holiday lights show?
Outdoor activities are very safe (and fun), but you should have your mask ready if you come in close contact with someone else. Standing in line? Mask up. In a crowd? Mask up. Go inside? Mask up.
Can we go to a holiday play or the 'Nutcracker'?
It's an indoor gathering of people that aren't in your household, which makes it an elevated risk.
Check the venue's safety precautions. Some like the Long Center are requiring proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test and masks to be worn.
Assess your own risk factors (vaccination status, age, health), but if you decide to go to an indoor event, wear a mask.
Can we visit Santa this year?
Is Santa vaccinated? Our doctors are worried about him if he's not. Even though kids aren't on Santa's lap for very long, there is still a risk to Santa and a risk to your family. The bigger risk is actually the waiting in line and being in close contact for a while with other people.
Consider having a vaccinated Santa that you know. Two other options are a virtual visit with Santa or a Santa phone call.
If you want to go to a traditional Santa spot, do your research before visiting to see what precautions that North Pole is taking. Is Santa vaccinated? Are they doing signups to limit the number of kids? What about social distancing in line? Masking? Is Santa staying home if he is sick?
Can we go to church?
No one wants to tell you no to this one, but the hope is there are some COVID-19 safety measures in place such as wearing a mask inside and seating family groups apart from other family groups. Don't forget about that hand hygiene, too.
Remember, it's not just COVID-19
This summer, pediatric hospitals especially saw a lot of respiratory diseases including parainfluenza, rhinoviruses and respiratory syncytial virus. Now, we're also starting flu season.
Get your flu shot, and practice all the things we've learned from COVID-19: wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands.