When the days get shorter and the temperatures lower, families look forward to the warmth and light that the holidays bring.
But with the U.S. and world still facing the COVID-19 pandemic, Akron Children’s Hospital doctors say it’s important for families to seriously weigh the risks of their usual gatherings this year. And it might be time to make some tough choices.
Dr. Rob McGregor, Akron Children’s chief medical officer, said the National Institutes of Health recently stated that all gatherings should be virtual this year.
“Given the current COVID uptick in our region, family plans should be made assuming no indoor gatherings outside of your ‘bubble,’” he said.
While Dr. McGregor feels that’s ultimately the best advice, he and pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. John Bower say there are some ways to gather more safely.
“The holidays should not be a time for risk and regret, but small, local gatherings of immediate family with clear guidelines – only if all are asymptomatic, masked, practicing good hand hygiene and keeping high-risk elderly safe at home — can help to significantly reduce both,” Dr. Bower said.
He added that in many ways, this year isn’t unlike other years, when doctors expect to see a rise in children’s illnesses after the busyness of the holidays.
“Experience reminds us every year that for many families, especially those with young children, there is that post-holiday expectation that viral gastro or respiratory symptoms will soon follow,” he said. “This will be no less true with COVID this year. If extended families gather together this year, there’s a reasonable chance that one member will be positive (albeit asymptomatic or presymptomatic) for COVID.”
The result? We could see a large uptick in cases and illness in the week or two following each holiday.
Dr. Eric Robinette, also a pediatric infectious disease specialist, added that other holidays with gatherings this year have already proven to accelerate the spread of COVID.
“Holiday parties have been a driver of new COVID-19 outbreaks with virtually every holiday that we’ve been through so far, such as Memorial Day, Labor Day and the 4th of July,” Dr. Robinette said. “Indoor gatherings will be higher risk than the outdoor gatherings done over the summer, so I agree that caution needs to be exercised.”
Should you hit the road?
Another challenge with holiday gatherings is travel. Going somewhere in your own car is less risky than flying, but there have been some data that shows air travel isn’t as bad as once thought for virus transmission.
“Current data suggests that with masking, social distancing and enhanced cleaning procedures along with the high frequency air-exchange and HEPA filtration done on airplanes that air travel is not as risky as we initially thought,” said Dr. Robinette. “It is not zero risk, though — so you have to make a risk/benefit judgement based on one’s age and medical status as well as your life situation and the urgency of the travel.”
Other activities involved in flying – lining up at the gate and security, lingering in terminals and having to change planes – can increase your chances of exposure. If you fly, remember to wear a face covering, stay 6 feet away from others as often as possible and frequently wash hands or use hand sanitizer.
Dr. Bower said airports vary in their ability to keep travelers appropriately socially distanced. And some major airlines are still filling middle seats and serving meals on crowed flights.
In his opinion? “Visiting with friends and family after such flights is not recommended,” Dr. Bower said.
If you must travel, check into what the COVID case numbers are at your destination. You can start with the CDC COVID Data Tracker at https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases_casesinlast7days and check the state departments of health and local county public health agencies for updated info.
Also, make sure you are aware of local restrictions such as mask mandates or quarantine restrictions if you are traveling to another state.
Think outside the dinner table
If you’re staying home or traveling, you’d probably like to get together with others for meals or celebrations. This year, however, medical experts suggest rethinking the way you normally celebrate.
Being confined indoors in a crowded space for a lengthy time is risky, especially if it’s with people you haven’t been seeing regularly. The Centers for Disease Control recommends being outdoors as much as possible, so if there a way to modify your family gathering to include something like a hike or sitting around the firepit?
Spreading out for a meal can also help, so instead of gathering around a big dining room table, consider sitting at smaller, spaced out tables if you have the room.
You can also limit your interactions with others outside your home for two weeks prior to your gathering, so your chances of having the virus are reduced when you get together. But if your kids are attending school in-person or taking part in extracurricular activities, that could be difficult.
Dr. McGregor clarified how important it is to both wear a mask and maintain 6 feet of distance from others when indoors. Many people feel that if they do one, it’s enough, but that’s not the case.
“But it’s so unfair!”
If this all seems like it’s too hard to imagine, pediatric psychologist Dr. Laura Gerak said she understands. But there are ways to lessen the pain to you and your family.
“One of the things you may hear is ‘We’ve already given up so much in 2020 due to COVID….it seems unfair to have this, too,’” she said. “I would start by acknowledging the feelings of all the family, validating feelings children may have. Let them voice the frustrations, anger and sadness they may be carrying – don’t ignore it or dismiss it, and don’t say ‘Well, that’s just how it is.’ They will navigate and adjust to a new plan much better if you’ve taken time to honor how hard this is for everyone – and don’t forget to include you.”
Dr. Gerak suggests using this opportunity to discuss how family and your traditions are about caring for and appreciating time with those we love.
“This year, it’s a time of caring for each other by being safe and protecting all those we love by not getting together – though it’s a huge sacrifice,” she said.
She also suggests planning ahead so your family will still have things to look forward to, though possibly different from your typical holiday. And involve children in the planning, brainstorming as a family, to see what ideas excite them.
Dr. McGregor, who like many has faced disruptions to his family plans as a result of the pandemic, said while this year will be hard, he remains hopeful that celebrations will return to normal in the future.
“We can do anything for a year — but please connect with your loved ones, virtually if that’s the safest way,” he said. “Now is the time we need each other’s support more than ever.”
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