Holidays during COVID: Here’s How to Celebrate Safely

March 6, 2021

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With the promise of vaccines just around the corner, it finally feels like we’re in the home stretch of the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s so tempting to put thoughts of the virus aside as the holidays approach. After all we’ve been through this year, haven’t we earned a celebration?

Yes. But. We aren’t out of the woods yet. And experts predict that the choices Americans make this holiday season will determine how much higher those death tolls rise before a vaccine becomes widely available.

So with that in mind, we have a few tips on how to celebrate safely in 2020.

Tip 1: Celebrate in person only with members of your own household

We know. This tip is not what anyone wants to hear. But this is what the CDC recommends, and we have to agree: with COVID cases spiking across the country, the only safe way for Americans to celebrate the holidays this year is with members of our own households.

This is because even if you and your would-be dinner guests are young, healthy, and have a relatively low risk of getting seriously ill from COVID, your community is full of people who are not —and those folks often don’t have a choice to completely isolate or avoid exposure. As of November 19, we have reached the devastating landmark of a million new COVID cases every week and nearly 2,000 Americans dying in a single day. Evidence suggests that young, asymptomatic carriers are behind this fall’s dramatic increase in community spread.

We are still in the midst of a national pandemic, with case numbers soaring higher than ever before. Remember back in March, when we cheered for healthcare workers every night and sewed homemade masks for local hospitals?

We need to summon that spirit again. During this season of giving, we all need to do our part to keep our vulnerable neighbors safe. Stay home when you can, even on holidays, and wear a mask when you can’t.

Tip 2: ‘Tis the season to get creative

Depressing news aside, there are still ways to make memories and celebrate holidays with your extended family and friends.

First, since we now know that COVID is much more likely to spread through the air than via surfaces, you can feel comfortable sending holiday cards, gifts, even homemade baked goods throughout the season. (No more need to worry about microwaving the mail, in other words.)

Think of how to move your beloved traditions online, like virtual holiday movie screenings, cookie baking sessions, recipe swaps, crafting parties, or happy hours. And spend a little extra time planning and scheduling these activities in advance—the anticipation is half the fun, and having something fun to look forward to could mean a lot to loved ones living alone.

You can even plan a Friendsgiving feast, 2020 style: coordinate with “guests” to prepare side dishes, exchange them at a distance, and return home to dine over video hangout.

No, it’s not the same—but it’s safe.

Tip 3: Don’t rely on COVID testing to feel safe

We’re concerned to see reports of COVID testing skyrocketing over the last week—partly due to increased community spread of the virus, but partly due to holiday-related demand for tests.

The truth is simple. You cannot rely on a negative COVID test to keep your loved ones safe.

Tests capture a snapshot of how much coronavirus is present in your body at the moment in time you took the test. The incubation period for COVID ranges from two days to two weeks—meaning you could be exposed one day, test negative the next, and develop symptoms a few days later.

“People need to recognize that a test today only proves you’re OK today. It says nothing about whether you might be incubating, or exposed, and won’t turn positive tomorrow or the next day,” according to infectious disease specialist Dr. Cameron Wolfe.

Let’s say you were tested on the morning of December 19, six days before Christmas, and your test is negative. If you were exposed to COVID on December 18, your test is meaningless—the virus takes at least 48 hours to incubate in your body.

If you were exposed to COVID on December 14, your December 19 test results still could be inaccurate—you may not have enough of the virus in your body to register a positive test, but by Christmas Day, you could be invisibly yet highly contagious with zero symptoms. In this scenario, you could isolate for twelve days, drive a few hours with no stops, and still infect your family.

And of course, you could get exposed to the virus anytime after your test, including on your airplane or car ride to Grandma’s house.

We’ll say it one more time: A negative COVID test is not proof you and your loved ones are safe.

We know this post is a big bummer. But it’s not nearly as depressing as unintentionally spreading COVID to someone you love—or a stranger you’ll never know. Do your part, stay home, and help everyone have a happy holiday!

Along with mashed potatoes, eggnog, and pie, the holidays serve up a helping of health hazards. If you experience a holiday mishap this Thanksgiving, we’re here.

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