family gathering for holiday meal

How to celebrate the holidays safely in 2021

In 2020, our holiday season celebrations were a bit complicated. In-person gatherings were cancelled or came with an abundance of caution, through limiting the number of attendees, eating outside or with open windows, wearing masks, and social distancing.

In many places, the situation has improved from 2020 — largely due to the availability of vaccines. Despite these improvements, this year’s situation is not yet fully “safe.” Although much lower, there are still risks of spreading the virus. This has led many infectious disease experts to continue to recommend that caution be used in your 2021 holiday celebration planning.

“Celebrating the holiday season with family and friends this year will be a welcome reality for many of us,” said Dr. Barrie Baker, Wellfleet’s Chief Medical Officer. “However, it will be so important to talk through things like level of comfort with gathering and vaccination status.”

If you and your family are considering gathering with more than just immediate family, understanding risks and deciding how much you are willing to accept is an important starting point in your planning.

Here are things you should consider in your 2021 holiday celebration planning.

Understand the risk levels with large celebrations

One of the most important considerations when planning, is your tolerance of the risk level associated with the gathering. This means understanding who is at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19.

People over the age of 65 and those with certain pre-existing health conditions continue to be the most vulnerable. Even if they’ve been vaccinated, they are still at higher risk of severe illness or death due to contracting COVID-19.

Additionally, those who have not been vaccinated are at much higher risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19. According to the CDC, unvaccinated adults are 12 times more likely to need hospitalization than unvaccinated adults.

At the other end of the spectrum are children who are too young to be vaccinated or have only been partially vaccinated. While it’s been shown that kids are at lower risk of severe illness due to contracting COVID-19 than older people, severe hospitalizations due to covid are a reality for them. Another important consideration is that unvaccinated children can still be asymptomatic virus carriers. Meaning they can infect higher-risk people, like grandparents, without anyone realizing it.

So, in addition to identifying who is at high risk, also take note of who has been vaccinated and who hasn’t to aid in understanding the risks to your holiday gathering.

Risk mitigation tactics for holiday gatherings

Once you’ve understood the risks levels of your holiday gathering, the next step is considering how to protect the most vulnerable in your family.

The safest course for all would be to limit your celebration to your own immediate family, postponing a gathering with larger numbers of the extended family until next year. However, if you’ve weighed the risks and are prepared to have a larger celebration, there are some risk mitigation tactics you can employ.

The first would be to limit the number of guests that are outside of your immediate family. If you plan to have one or more people who are at higher risk, such as an older person or small child, a smaller guest list comprised only of vaccinated people is a much safer option.

When developing your guest list, you’ll want to confirm their vaccination status. This is one of the most important factors in determining the types of additional safety measures you may want to use.

If your guest list will include unvaccinated people, it’s advisable to consider asking them to receive a vaccination, and to do so far enough in advance of the date of your gathering for the vaccine to have reached its maximum effectiveness.

Many people have strong feelings both for and again vaccination, so this has the potential to be a challenging conversation. However, vaccination of all eligible guests is a big factor in risk migration for all guests, especially those who are not eligible to receive the vaccine.

If your gathering will include unvaccinated people, it’s important to add layers of additional protection. Infectious disease experts strongly recommend reducing social activities, arranging for physical distancing of at least three feet, increasing masking where and when possible, and holding your gathering in areas with higher levels of ventilation, or even outdoors if weather permits. Further for at-risk and younger unvaccinated children, it’s advised to have them surrounded only by people who are vaccinated.

Travel considerations

If you are traveling to a holiday celebration rather than hosting one yourself, you’ll want to consider transmission rates and testing. For instance, learn about COVID-19 transmission and vaccination rates in your community and the one you will be traveling to. This will help you make a more informed decision about not only the level of risk to your own family but also the risk level of anyone with whom you may be visiting during your travels.

If you live in an area or are traveling to one with low daily cases of infection your travel could be a relatively low risk for both your family and those you are visiting. However, if the daily cases in your area or the one you’re visiting are on the rise or currently high, you may want to reconsider your travel plans.

For those with access, getting tested before attending a gathering can act as another layer of protection. Rapid tests return results in just a few minutes, while PCR tests can take up to a day. In some areas, at-home rapid tests are even an option, making it easy for people to make sure they aren’t asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

Take proper precautions

Last year’s holiday celebration season was complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the situation has improved in many places due to the availability of several highly effective vaccines and widespread eligibility to receive them, there are still risks. Understanding these risks is an important part of planning for your holiday gatherings.

Knowing your guest list and their risk level and vaccination status is one of the most important factors in determining how to best protect the most vulnerable at your gathering.

If you have assessed all risks and still plan to hold your gathering, risk mitigation tactics such as physical distancing by at least three feet and masking are strongly encouraged.

If you plan to travel, you should consider the infection rates in your area and the to which you will be traveling to help you determine whether it would be best to travel. And remember, COVID-19 isn’t the only virus out there. Make sure you’re up to date on your flu vaccine if you’re planning to travel or attend a large gathering.

Although the situation has improved from a year ago, experts are still strongly encouraging caution in your holiday celebration planning. As the COVID-19 pandemic and its negative effects continue, for most of us a time of reuniting together with family and friends could help improve our mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

If planning for the holidays this year is becoming stressful, here are some tips on how to cope with stress during a pandemic.

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