For many families, this will be the first Thanksgiving they will be gathering together since the devastating COVID-19 pandemic began. With widespread vaccine rollouts across the country over the last year, many family members are fully-vaccinated. We all want to make sure we are being as safe as possible as COVID-19 cases continue to be diagnosed in our communities. Here’s some advice from an infectious disease specialist.
Vaccines are the best protection against COVID-19
If you are gathering with family or friends for Thanksgiving, the most critical issue is making sure everyone who is eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine is fully vaccinated. Fully vaccinated means it has been two weeks since the final shot of the vaccine.
This might mean having difficult discussions and decisions regarding loved ones who are not vaccinated. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that unvaccinated people are about 29 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated people are also six times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 than vaccinated people.
If you are eligible for a booster vaccine dose, this is a great time to get it in preparation for the upcoming holiday season.
COVID-19 will likely continue to be part of our lives for the foreseeable future. We must make smart choices to protect our health and the health of our loved ones.
Unvaccinated children and safe holiday protocols
In early November 2021, the CDC approved Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines for children 5-11 years old. However, many children will not be fully vaccinated in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. If your child is unvaccinated, they should wear a mask when they are indoors and around loved ones who don’t live in their household. Children younger than two should not wear a mask. The best way to protect children who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated is to ensure that the people around them are fully vaccinated.
Unvaccinated loved ones
The safest way to celebrate the holidays is for everyone to be vaccinated if they are eligible. The CDC recommends that unvaccinated people wear a mask when gathering with others outside of their household.
Immunocompromised loved ones
Special consideration should be given to individuals with compromised immune systems. This includes people who are taking medications that weaken the immune system or have conditions such as cancer or have undergone solid organ or stem cell transplants. These individuals may not be fully protected from COVID-19 even if they are fully vaccinated and have received a third dose of the vaccine. They should follow precautions encouraged for unvaccinated people like wearing a well-fitted mask for added protection. Immunocompromised people are further protected when those around them are fully vaccinated.
COVID-19 testing ahead of gathering
If you are going to be around loved ones who don’t live in your household, it’s a good idea to get tested for COVID-19 before the gathering. Rapid tests can return results in a few minutes while PCR tests can be more accurate. Rapid tests can be done at home and are now commonly available to purchase over the counter in neighborhood pharmacies like Walgreens or CVS.
Safe family dinner
CDC research shows there is a low risk of COVID-19 spreading through people touching surfaces. However, it is still a good idea for everyone to use their own utensils to serve themselves – instead of sharing serving spoons or forks with the entire family.
Consider setting up separate tables or eating areas so that household members can eat with their family unit.
When it comes to the best atmosphere for gatherings, outdoors is the safest option. That may not be a possibility if the weather is too cold. If you are inside, avoid crowding guests and avoid poorly ventilated spaces.
If you have a loved one who is immunocompromised, you may decide to continue to wear a mask even if you are fully vaccinated.
If you are unvaccinated, you should wear a mask at all times – unless you’re eating. If you have an immunocompromised family member – you should consider eating away from them in order to prevent possible transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
The CDC recommends delaying travel if you are not fully vaccinated. Everyone, including fully vaccinated people, must wear masks on public transportation such as airplanes or buses.
If you are traveling, wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer to reduce the amount of germs on your hands acquired from high-touch surfaces such as: door handles, seat belts and arm rests.
Flu shots are critical
We know COVID-19 isn’t the only virus that can ruin a holiday. Fall and winter are the height of flu season as well. Get your flu shot to help prevent yourself from getting severely ill or spreading it to someone else.
When to avoid the holiday gathering
There are times when someone will have to make the difficult but necessary choice to miss the family get-together. This choice is needed if you are unvaccinated and will be around immunocompromised loved ones; if you are feeling under the weather; or if you test positive for COVID-19… even if you aren’t experiencing any symptoms.
We know being with loved ones on holidays are long-standing traditions, but we must make safe choices to protect our families as this pandemic continues.