How to Prep for Family Visits this Holiday Season
People may be looking forward to family get-togethers more than ever this holiday season. Here are expert tips to avoid spreading Covid-19.
Holiday family visits during Covid-19
Thanksgiving, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, New Year’s, and other winter celebrations are traditionally times to be with family. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, though, being with people—even family—can be risky. “We’ve had extensive transmission related to family gatherings and we saw spikes after Memorial Day, July Fourth, and Labor Day,” says Dean A. Blumberg, MD, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Health. (Here are a few tips for how to prep for a Covid-19 winter.)
The nation’s advisor on the pandemic, Anthony Fauci, MD, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recommends scaling back to immediate family this Thanksgiving, adding that he and his wife would not be celebrating in-person with their three adult daughters who live in different parts of the country. But many will be actually (as opposed to virtually) seeing their loved ones. (Find out when it’s safe to see your grandparents again.)
Tips for reducing Covid-19 risk during the holiday season
Ask yourself if you should get together at all
Some people should not be participating in any type of gathering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this includes people who have been diagnosed with Covid-19, those who have coronavirus symptoms, people waiting for test results, or those who think they may have been exposed to someone with Covid-19 in the past 14 days. And remember that more than half of Covid-19 transmissions come from people who have no symptoms, says Dr. Blumberg.
Protect your older relatives
Deciding whether or not to get together with family should hinge at least partly on whether older relatives will be present. Infection experts have known since the beginning of the pandemic that seniors are among those at high risk for coronavirus. They are even more at risk if they have an underlying condition like lung, kidney, or heart disease, asthma, diabetes, a weakened immune system, or if they’re obese. (Actually, people of any age who have any of these conditions are at higher risk for more severe Covid-19 illness.)
“We want to be extra careful with Grandma and Grandpa,” says Dr. Blumberg. “We want to hug Grandma but it’s better not to.” Just as it may be better not to get within several miles of hugging distance if you think you’ve had any Covid-19 exposure. And if you do share a room or a dinner table with elderly relatives, wear a mask (except when you’re eating) and practice social distancing.
Planes, trains, or automobiles?
The less you travel during Covid-19, the safer you’ll be. That said, if you do end up traveling this winter, Dr. Blumberg believes that driving is safer than flying. “You’re going to be isolated from others,” says Dr. Blumberg. “If you do take the train, plane, or some other form of transportation, distance as much as possible while getting on and off and during the trip.” Spending long periods of time in the company of strangers is something to avoid, which argues against traveling by plane, train, or bus.
UC Davis Health has these safety tips for people driving: Map out your trip beforehand, stop as little as possible, wear disposal gloves or use a paper towel when pumping gas, and use contactless payments if possible. And, as always, wear a mask in public settings, keep your distance from others, wash your hands frequently, and don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth if your hands aren’t sanitized.
Some make a case for the safety of flying—notably, the airlines: An October 2020 study by Harvard researchers and funded by the airline industry concluded that flying “is as safe or substantially safer than the routine activities people undertake during these times.” In fact, an earlier study conducted by the Department of Defense found that the risk of the virus being transmitted through the air via aerosol dispersion on planes was reduced 99.7 percent due to elements such as HEPA-filter recirculation and downward vents on modern jets.
But flying also involves getting to the airport, checking in, standing in security lines, and other interactions where your exposure will be elevated. Because there are risks in driving and flying, experts suggest basing your decision on factors such as the length of your trip, your personal comfort factors, and the safety guidelines you’re following.
Consider group size, the timing, and the space
Three main factors affect your risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, in a social setting: the size of the gathering, how much time you’ll be spending with others, and what kind of space you’re in, says Emily Sickbert-Bennett, PhD, director of infection prevention, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There’s no hard and fast rule on how many people is safe, but local regulations can provide some parameters.
The key is to limit the amount of close contact you have with anyone who might be sick. The CDC recently updated its definition of close contact as someone who spends a total of 15 minutes with an infected person over a period of 24 hours. (The previous guidance was 15 minutes at one time.) That’s just one more reason to stay six feet away from others, even at a family party.
As for the third consideration—space—outdoors is always better than indoors but that often can be more difficult in winter. The CDC recommends determining the number of people at a gathering based on the ability to keep people at a distance while inside. Opening the windows or doors for ventilation can also help.
Host a phased open house
One way to handle larger groups is by having a holiday open house with scheduled slots for different household groupings, says Sickbert-Bennett. The term “household” is key here. “The risk of Covid-19 increases with the more people you’re around, not necessarily individual people but how many households you’re interacting with,” she says. Another strategy would be to set up separate tables for different households if you have the space, says Sickbert-Bennett.
The CDC also recommends taking into account where attendees are coming from. Events are riskier if people are coming from many different places so try to keep any gatherings local. No matter where people arrive from, ask them to bring masks and hand sanitizer. (Check out this A-Z coronavirus cleaning guide.)
Ask guests to bring their own plates, cups, and utensils, or use disposable ones. Although the most common way Covid-19 spreads is through respiratory droplets, it can also live on inanimate surfaces. You might even want to ask them to bring their own food, even though there’s no strong evidence yet that Covid spreads through food.
Give yourself—and others—a break
Remember before the pandemic when getting together with family was already stressful enough? While sibling rivalry and touchy memories may take a back seat this year, keep in mind that long-standing issues will likely still be there. “Sometimes old patterns come up,” says Laura Hawkins, DNP, clinical assistant professor at Purdue University’s School of Nursing in West Lafayette, Indiana. “With Covid-19, pretty much everyone is under long-term stress. At some level, it might be harder to handle some of those normal patterns. Give everybody extra grace and leeway.”
Wearing masks, too, may change the interactions. “Masks are a barrier to communication and they also affect how people interpret what you’re saying,” says Robert Glatter, MD an emergency physician with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. None of which is a reason to skip mask wearing.
This year’s holidays are going to take a lot more planning and forethought than ever before and you may be anticipating them more than ever, raising a potential problem: “Plans get harder to abandon when you have something you’re really looking forward to,” says Sickbert-Bennett. “You need to approach this with flexibility. If you’re not feeling well, you need to be willing to change your plans.”
The last word
If you’re considering visiting family during the holiday season, ask yourself if you have been following stringent masking, social distancing, and hygiene guidelines. If not, you may want to rethink joining the family. “Be thoughtful about what risky behaviors you’ve been taking in the couple of weeks before meeting up with family,” says Sickbert-Bennett.
Next, learn about the worst super spreader events this year.
- Dean A. Blumberg, MD, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Health
- CNN: "CDC Thanksgiving guidelines: How to stay safe and coronavirus-free over the holiday"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Holiday Celebrations"
- Emily Sickbert-Bennett, PhD, director of infection prevention, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- UC Davis Health: "UC Davis experts provide tips and cautions for visiting older family members"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "When to Quarantine"
- Minnesota Department of Health: "Safe Holiday Celebrations during COVID-19"
- Laura Hawkins, DNP, clinical assistant professor, School of Nursing, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana
- Robert Glatter, MD, emergency physician, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City
- Harvard School of Public Health: "Aviation Public Health Initiative"
- TRANSCOM/AMC Commercial Aircraft Cabin Aerosol Dispersion Tests
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Appendices"