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Holidays & COVID-19: Weighing the Risk

Holidays & COVID-19: Weighing the Risk

With Dr. Manuel Gordillo, SMH Infectious Disease Specialist

The best part of the holiday season, for most of us, is spending quality time with friends and family. But with COVID-19 cases on the rise again, are traditional holiday get-togethers too risky? Should we skip the usual Thanksgiving celebration this year?

“That’s understandably a tough decision,” said Dr. Manuel Gordillo, who leads Sarasota Memorial’s infectious disease unit. “But you have to decide if it’s worth the risk. You have to make a real, hard assessment of the situation.”

Weighing the Risk

The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with. So, before sending out invites or RSVP’ing to a 2020 holiday celebration, Dr. Gordillo recommends doing a basic risk assessment. 

Consider who the guests will be, where the festivities will take place and ways you can minimize the risk of getting or spreading COVID-19. And then, decide whether that risk is worth it.

Are any guests considered high risk for severe illness?
Is anyone on the guestlist pregnant? A tobacco smoker? Age 65 or older? Undergoing chemotherapy? Had an organ transplant? Or living with a disease that puts them at increased risk? This would include obesity, diabetes, asthma, COPD, cancer, chronic kidney disease, heart failure and coronary artery disease. 

If you’re unsure, ask. All these need to be considered when weighing the risk. (Click here for a more in-depth list from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) 

Those who are high risk (or live with someone who’s at increased risk) should avoid in-person gatherings with people outside their household, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Where will the get-together be held? Will you or others be traveling to attend?
Are people coming to visit you, or are you going to visit somebody else? If travelling, what risks are involved with getting there and back, and where are you going to stay? 

“Hosting people in your house or visiting somebody else in their home is not a good idea these days,” Dr. Gordillo said. 

Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19 — whether it’s spending time in crowded airport security lines and terminals, or using public restrooms and eating at restaurants on a roadtrip. Be aware of the risks, and weigh them in your assessment.

If you’re travelling out of state, consider the level of community spread in that area; find out what, if any, restrictions there are on travelers and on gathering size; and review the CDC’s travel health notices

“Some states are seeing record numbers of COVID cases,” Dr. Gordillo said. “If you're going to go to another state, check with that state’s health department to see what their recommendations are. There are sometimes restrictions on the number of people that can get together and so forth, and those rules keep changing.”

Check with your employer. Some companies have rules about where staff cannot travel and whether they’ll need to quarantine or be tested for COVID before returning to work.

Other things you should consider in your risk assessment: Is the gathering to be held outdoors or indoors? How many people will be attending? What precautions are guests expected to take (mask wearing, social distancing, etc.)?

Indoor gatherings pose far more risk than those held outdoors. Luckily, here in Florida, November and December offer ideal weather for outdoor activities. Take advantage of this: Enjoy our weather and time with loved ones in a setting that’s far safer than sitting around a table indoors.

Consider the behavior of other guests prior to the get-together. Have they been participating in high-risk behaviors? 

Knowing the above information will help you understand the risk level involved with your holiday plans — and ultimately, will help you decide whether you’re willing to accept that risk that you may get or spread COVID-19.

“You have to consider the worst-case scenario,” Dr. Gordillo said. “You get together. Someone gets COVID-19 and ends up in the hospital with a bad outcome. That’s always a possibility — and not just for elderly parents or grandparents. There are a lot of other people who are at risk. That’s the reality.”

Is it worth it?
It’s a decision each of us has to make on our own. However, health experts have strongly advised that this is not the year for extended-family gatherings or Friendsgiving get-togethers with those outside of your household. Instead, it’s an opportunity to create new traditions — and help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“If you weigh these risks and decide that it's not worth it, then obviously, you need to find some alternatives. There's still Zoom chats and all these other things that you could do to substitute for a gathering,” suggested Dr. Gordillo.

Plan a Safe(r) Celebration

On Nov. 19 — in the wake of another spike of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. — the CDC issued an advisory recommending against Thanksgiving travel and encouraging people to play it safe by celebrating holidays at home and only with the people in their household.

If your {hopefully small} circle does decide to gather, do it responsibly. Take all the precautions you can to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“You first must set the ground rules,” Dr. Gordillo advised. “Are we going to be wearing masks? Under what conditions? How are we going to be physically distancing?”

Remind attendees that if they are sick, they must stay home. No one should feel obligated to attend simply because they already told the grandparents they’re coming to visit, Dr. Gordillo added.

“We need to discourage presenteeism, which is, ‘I'm a little bit sick, but I already made a commitment to go visit them so I need to go.’ Don't make that mistake,” he said.
If you’re hosting, keep the guestlist short. Offer attendees face coverings, hand sanitizer and seating options that allow for proper physical distancing (6 feet or more).

“Rather than the way you do a traditional Thanksgiving dinner — sitting at the table, a whole bunch of people sitting there for hours, talking and reminiscing — you're going to have to cut that down. Spend less time crowded together or seated near one another,” Dr. Gordillo said. “And it might be better to have one person serving the food to everyone, rather than people serving themselves, to avoid guests crowding together.” 

Have the gathering outdoors ideally.

“We now know that most transmission occurs through droplets and the air. So, keep that in mind. If you have the opportunity to do most of the activities outdoors, that's going to be much better,” Dr. Gordillo said. 

If possible, avoid traveling — or asking others to travel — especially out of state. 

Can’t avoid the trek? Protect yourself: Make sure you are up to date with vaccinations and get your flu shot; wear a mask, wash your hands often and social distance. 

For more tips on safe traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic, click here to check out the CDC website.

Happy Holidays

However you decide to celebrate the upcoming holidays, we hope you do it safely, and wish you a happy, healthy holiday season. And as always, we’ll be here if you need us.

* This content was published on Nov. 17, 2020, and was updated Nov. 19, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is a continually evolving situation, and federal health official update guidance frequently. For the latest info, visit the CDC website.

Posted: Nov 17, 2020,
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Author: Ann Key