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Doctors & Advice, Family Health

COVID-19 Holidays Redux: How To Celebrate Safely This Year

BY CARRIE MACMILLAN November 22, 2021

The outlook is much brighter this season, but taking precautions is still advised.

Last year, Thanksgiving planning was mostly an exercise in complicated logistics—and frustration. This holiday season, however, the situation is much better, thanks to the availability of COVID-19 vaccines

“A year ago, we focused on determining personal risk tolerance. But this year, with case rates relatively low, we are in a safer place ,” says Jaimie Meyer, MD, MS, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases expert. “The majority of people in the U.S. are vaccinated, and I don’t think we need to tell people that we should all be outside—or inside with only three people, all of whom are masked.” 

Rather, Dr. Meyer says she finds it reasonable to have a “normal-looking” Thanksgiving. 

“To me that means hosting a holiday meal with immediate family in which everyone is vaccinated,” she says. “We are now at the point where it’s about figuring out how to live with a measure of risk. It’s dangerous to drive cars, for example, but we have seat belts to make them safer.” 

Similarly, there are COVID-19 precautions you can take to ensure any gathering you attend or host is safer this holiday season. 

We talked with Dr. Meyer and Yale Medicine public and mental health experts. They discussed these precautions, travel safety, and the social etiquette of discussing vaccination status. 

Vaccination is key for holiday celebrations

The most important step to protect ourselves for the holidays is to get vaccinated, says Saad Omer, MBBS, PhD, MPH, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health. 

“That means everyone 5 and older should get vaccinated. People 65 and older who have already received their vaccines should get boosters, and those who are immunocompromised should have three doses of the vaccine,” says Dr. Omer. 

Plus, everyone over age 18 recently became eligible for boosters.

It’s important to note, however, that even if children between ages 5 and 11 received a COVID-19 vaccine the first week it was authorized, they won’t be fully protected until two weeks following their second dose (which is 21 days after the first). 

That means there isn’t enough time for kids to get vaccinated and be fully protected for Thanksgiving, explains Dr. Omer.

“Still, one shot is better than none, and there is some level of protection—even with a first dose. But it won’t be until mid-December at the earliest that kids are fully protected, depending on when they get their doses,” Dr. Meyer says. 

Additional precautionary steps you can take

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those who are not fully vaccinated should wear a well-fitting mask when in public indoor settings. Even those who are fully vaccinated should wear a mask in similar settings, if they are in a community with substantial-to-high transmission.

But, says Nathan Grubaugh, PhD, a Yale School of Public Health epidemiologist, much of the advice surrounding the holidays this year involves making smart choices. 

“We know how this virus is transmitted, and we know what we need to do to stay safe,” Grubaugh says. “Obviously, families are going to get together. If some family members aren’t vaccinated, we can encourage them to take rapid tests and to wear masks as much as possible.” 

Even if all attendees are vaccinated, some people may still feel more comfortable with extra layers of protection. 

“If you are visiting relatives in a warmer climate, you can gather outdoors,” Dr. Omer says. “And for those who live in colder climates where outdoor celebrations are impractical, you may want to keep gatherings on the smaller side. It can be more than just a few people, but you wouldn’t want to throw a party for 50 people—unless you know that everyone is vaccinated.”

Another idea is having guests take rapid antigen COVID-19 tests before an event, Dr. Omer says. Such a test, which could even be taken at home, could be done the morning of the event—or even right before it—as the results come back in a matter of minutes.

Yet another safety measure for indoor gatherings is to get a portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter, Dr. Omer suggests. Such a machine can remove viral particles from the air, but it’s important to make sure the machine’s clean air delivery rate matches the room size. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an online guide on air cleaners in the home that explains how to do this in detail.   

Is it safe to travel?

The CDC still recommends delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated. Everyone, including those who are fully vaccinated, is required to wear a mask on public transportation and follow international travel recommendations. 

“A lot depends on where—and how—you are going,” Dr. Omer says. “Virus transmission aboard an airplane is not a huge risk, for example, especially if everyone wears their masks. However, taking precautions when your guard might be down, such as when you’re walking through the airport terminal, is important. You should always wear your mask, making sure to cover your nose.” 

Additional tips can be found on the CDC’s Travel page

Asking about vaccination status

Broaching the topic of vaccination status with some family and friends may seem daunting, but it all comes down to proper communication, says David Klemanski, PsyD, MPH, director of the Psychological Assessment Service at Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital. 

“Once you figure out the priorities for your family, you need to communicate that to others. If vaccination is important to you, you want to include that in the invitation,” Klemanski says. “It may feel personal to ask people about their vaccination status, but it’s fair to ask and to talk about other safety precautions you would like your guests to take.”  

You can frame the vaccine issue as a description of how you feel, including that you are excited to see everyone, but that you want all to be safe, Klemanski adds. “That may help take the sting out of it,” he says. 

For those who are hoping they can persuade friends or family members to get vaccinated, that can be trickier, Klemanski adds. 

“Depending on your history with the person, you may want to leave that topic alone, especially at this point in the pandemic. If they aren’t vaccinated, there is likely a strong reason why,” he says. “If the intent is to change their mind, that might not work. But if you are looking to listen and understand, that is different.” 

Dr. Meyer says a friend of hers recently sent out a holiday invite explicitly stating that proof of vaccination is required. 

“I think it’s best to be clear about what you want, what your expectations are, and that they are not movable. You might alienate some people, so it’s important that you’re comfortable with that outcome,” she says. 

If vaccination is something certain friends or family members aren’t willing to do, one option is to put off gathering, especially in the winter months if you live in a colder climate. “Maybe the time to get together would be the Fourth of July, when you can grill outside,” Dr. Omer says. 

But for those who are vaccinated? “You can have fun over the holidays and celebrate safely,” says Dr. Omer.