How to stay safe this holiday season

Yet again, we find ourselves in another holiday season amid the COVID-19 pandemic questioning how to safely gather with friends and family. Although this year is accompanied by vaccines, many may still feel anxious about carrying on traditions with the potential winter surge and breakthrough infections.

“It’s about finding the right balance. We don’t want to widen our circles too much and increase our risk of exposure, but isolating ourselves isn’t the answer either,” said Mina DeMarco, DO, a family medicine physician at UVA Bull Run Family Medicine Bristow.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that there are several ways to enjoy holiday traditions while protecting yourself and your family from respiratory illness. DeMarco dives into these recommendations and adds some of her own.

Travel

The CDC recommends delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated. Even if you are fully vaccinated, taking precautions while traveling significantly lowers risk of exposure.

Driving your own car and making minimal stops along the way is the safest option, but that’s not always feasible.

If you are fully vaccinated or have a need to travel via public transportation, it’s important to:

  • Wear a well-fitted mask over your mouth and nose when traveling on a plane, bus or train.
  • Maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from anyone who is not traveling with you, if able.
  • Wash hands frequently when sinks are readily accessible.
  • Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Wipe down your area with a disinfecting wipe.

“It’s also not a bad idea to change your clothes, wash your hands and face, and sanitize your bags when you arrive at your destination,” DeMarco added.

Be sure to follow all state and local regulations and recommendations.

Upon your return, self-monitor for COVID-19 or other respiratory illness symptoms. If any symptoms do develop, you should get tested and isolate immediately.

Gatherings

Whether you’re traveling or staying local, gatherings with anyone outside of your immediate household pose risks. However, there are steps we can take to make that much-anticipated, face-to-face time together as safe as possible.

If you are not fully vaccinated, it is recommended you wear a mask when gathering indoors. Masks are not needed for outdoor gatherings; however, in areas of high transmission, consider wearing a mask in crowded settings where distancing can’t be maintained.

“The cold winter months make it difficult to get together outdoors. But nothing beats gathering around a fire with warm blankets and cozy sweaters,” DeMarco said. “Hot chocolate and s’mores are always a good addition to family bonding.”

It’s also important to keep the physical contact — hugging, handshakes, high fives — to a minimum and use your best judgment.

If a friend or family member has an underlying health condition, has recently felt unwell or simply feels uncomfortable with touch, the best practice is to keep your distance.

Dining

“Everyone enjoys a family meal with the long table, place settings and food spread about. It’s perfectly fine to carry on this tradition if handled safely,” DeMarco noted.

It is less safe to have close contact with people who are not vaccinated. It is important to encourage those who can get vaccinated to do so before the holidays.

Wash your hands before preparing food, eating or drinking. Try to maintain distance during dinner. If you have a large family or gathering, consider setting up multiple tables with fewer people in each space. It is safer if the individuals who are attending are vaccinated.

“None of us imagined we’d be facing another ‘COVID holiday,’ but it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy this season of cheer. We just have to do it safely,” DeMarco concluded.

If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, whether before or after traveling or spending time with others, self-isolate and contact your doctor or local pharmacy to schedule a test as quickly as possible.

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