Answering patients’ FAQ on celebrating the holidays safely in 2021

A CMO and a public health official answer FAQ about celebrating safely during the holiday season — questions DOs will likely be fielding from patients in the coming weeks.

As we close out our second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans are looking for holiday safety tips for guidance on safely traveling and celebrating with their families. While 2020 left many families unable to get together safely, this year celebrations might look a tad bit more normal, with vaccines now available.

Jacqueline Watson, DO, MBA, president and chief strategy officer of Health Concepts International LLC, who is also the chief of staff for the Washington, DC, Department of Health, recommends keeping gatherings as small as possible and making sure gathering spaces are well-ventilated.

“You want to make sure you understand what the COVID situation is wherever you’re going,” says Dr. Watson. “Know the requirements, and make sure everyone is vaccinated.”

Richard Bryce, DO, the chief medical officer at Community Health and Social Services Center in Detroit, and a program director at Henry Ford Medical Center, stresses that it’s still really important to take precautions.

“I know people have COVID fatigue and want to see family,” says Dr. Bryce. “Vaccines are effective but not perfect, and it’s still safer to hold back. If people gather in person, they should be taking precautions to reduce the risk of transmission.”

Below, Drs. Bryce and Watson answer FAQ about celebrating safely during the 2021 holiday season — questions DOs will likely be fielding from patients in the coming weeks. Physicians can also consider sharing the CDC’s guidelines for safe holiday celebrations with patients. While we’re not completely back to a “normal” celebration routine yet, we are certainly closer to one than we were in 2020.

Is it safe to celebrate in person with family and friends this holiday season?

Dr. Bryce: “Within reason, yes – you have to be realistic. It’s a benefit to get vaccinated before the holidays, especially if you’re high-risk. It’s also a good idea to get tested beforehand. Just go in understanding the risk, and do all that you can to be safe.”

Dr. Watson: “Thankfully, we’re in a much better place this holiday season than the last one. We’re not going to get to zero, and we’ll have to learn how to live with it and assess risk. It’s safe, but if you’re high-risk, be very careful. It behooves us all to be responsible citizens to keep each other safe.”

What are some precautions you can take to ensure it’s as safe as possible?

Dr. Watson: “It’s advisable to wear masks and social distance as much as possible, and to stay within your own bubble, if you can. It’s critical to maintain good ventilation, especially coming into flu season, and with children just now starting to be able to get vaccinated.”

Dr. Bryce: “Wash hands, and wear masks, if possible. Identify those who could be high-risk, and social distance from them. It’s even better to bring heaters and sit outside where social distancing is easier. Being vaccinated opens up doors, but you could still be asymptomatic.”

What is the max amount of people you would recommend having at your holiday celebration to be as safe as possible?

Dr. Bryce: “It’s not the number that’s the issue, but the diverse issue of risk within the family that needs to be considered. If we’re talking 5-10 people, that’s probably safer than 20-30, especially if in a smaller house, but the higher the amount of people, the higher the risk, especially with young kids and seniors. Most of the time, kids have mild symptoms, but they’re still at risk to pass it on to other people.”

Dr. Watson: “In general, no specific guidelines give much on this, but you’ll want to keep your bubble together and be vaccinated – however, it can vary depending on where you live and/or will be celebrating, so check your state rules to see capacity limits and guidelines.”

What if you or a family member you’re visiting have recovered from COVID-19 within the last few months? Can you assume that you are at a relatively higher or lower risk?

Dr. Watson: “It’s lower if they’ve recovered within 90 days. Obviously, you should avoid contact with those who are ill currently or showing symptoms.”

Dr. Bryce: “Less, we believe. We believe you’ll have some antibody protection, but since different people react differently, that’s why we’re still encouraging a booster shot of the vaccine if it’s available to you. There’s still the unknown.”

Is it possible to travel safely via train or plane right now?

Dr. Bryce: “You’re going to be close to people, but it’s safe with precautions. I’ve been impressed with the airlines, they’re been really working to decrease risk and clean areas. But as always, if you have the option, a car is the best to decrease your chances of coming into contact with COVID.”

Dr. Watson: “Private car is always safest. If you’re traveling by train or plane, you’ll have to follow protocols. If you’re leaving the country, you’re required to be tested, and wear masks, social distance, wash hands – the ABCs of COVID prevention. It’s all about assessing the risk – I wouldn’t recommend traveling without being vaccinated because you could be exposing people to the virus.”

Disclaimer: Please note the views of Jacqueline Watson, DO, are her own personal opinions and not representative of the Washington, DC, Department of Health.

Related reading:

Top 10 holiday gifts for doctors and med students in 2021

Top 10 holiday gifts for doctors and med students in 2020

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