COVID-19: Infectious disease specialist weighs in on safely celebrating the holidays

Father and two kids video calling grandparents on phone with a Christmas tree in the background

As we near the end of 2020, it’s probably safe to say that we could all use some holiday cheer. But with the number of COVID-19 cases on the rise throughout the country, it’s important to remain vigilant. While it might be hard to hear, that means the way we celebrate the holidays this year will be a little different.

“Conventional wisdom would be that this is not the year to have a big, multigenerational get together with people that you haven’t seen for a while,” says Dr. Carl Vartian, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake.

Dr. Vartian understands the desire to see loved ones, but is concerned that people will let their guard down, not thinking about wearing a face mask at grandma’s house or not practicing social distancing when around cousins they haven’t seen in a year.

Man wearing suit and tie. Headshot of Dr. Carl Vartian.
Dr. Carl Vartian, infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake

College-age kids will also be returning home from their universities, where there have been more than 252,000 cases at more than 1,700 U.S. schools, according to a survey conducted by the New York Times.

“Since we don’t really know who has [COVID-19], who doesn’t have it, who could be an asymptomatic carrier of it, I think it’s just best to avoid contact with people you haven’t seen for a while because you really don’t know where they’ve been or what they’ve been exposed to and what they might be carrying,” Dr. Vartian says.

Or, you might be the one who is unknowingly spreading the virus.

Virtual-only activities, events and gatherings pose the lowest risk of spreading COVID-19. Instead of meeting in person, Dr. Vartian suggests using Skype, Zoom or FaceTime to share a meal virtually with long-distance loved ones.

Woman sitting at desk video calling friends on computer

Celebrating in-person carries higher risk and myriad precautions should be taken into consideration if individuals from different households will be gathering. If you do decide to host family and friends for the holidays, Dr. Vartian recommends keeping your gathering small, outside and socially distanced.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for holiday celebrations, noting that even “small household gatherings are an important contributor to the rise of COVID-19 cases.” In Canada, where Thanksgiving was celebrated on Oct. 12, there was a spike in cases three weeks after the holiday.

The CDC shares these factors to consider when deciding whether to host or attend an event:

  • Community levels of COVID-19: Consider levels both where the gathering will be held and where all guests are coming from. High or increasing levels mean a greater risk of infection and spread. Check your local health department’s website for case numbers, as well as information on local guidelines and restrictions.
  • Exposure during travel: Staying home is the best way to ensure the safety of yourself and others, but if you do decide to travel, Dr. Vartian says driving may be safer than flying because you’re in your own “bubble” and can stop where you want, or not stop at all, depending on the length of your trip. If you travel, wear a mask on airplanes, trains, ships, ferries, taxis and ride shares; stay at least six feet apart from others; wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol; and avoid touching your mask, eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Location of the gathering: Outdoor gatherings are preferred over those indoors, but even if you’re outside, guests should wear masks when not eating and stay six feet apart. If inside, open windows and doors to increase ventilation.
  • Duration of the gathering: Shorter gatherings are less risky than longer gatherings. Being within six feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more greatly increases the risk of becoming sick.
  • Number of guests: The number of guests should be determined based on the size of the yard or house and how many people can be there while remaining six feet apart. The World Health Organization also suggests that hosts control crowding by staggering arrivals and departures and assigning seats, among other recommendations.
  • Behavior of guests before and during the event: Guests should practice safety measures like social distancing, wearing a mask and frequently washing their hands before attending, and avoid contact with people outside their household for the two weeks leading up to the holiday. Continue to follow safety measures during the event, and disinfect surfaces and shared items.

When it comes to food, Dr. Vartian says it’s important to avoid potluck-style dinners this year, where everyone uses the same serving utensils and passes around dishes. Instead, consider having everyone bring their own food this year (which might be a welcome change for stressed hosts!) or support a favorite local restaurant and order individual meals for everyone.

And don’t forget about the flu.

“Get your flu shot,” Dr. Vartian says. “We suspect that flu season may not be quite as bad just simply because people are wearing masks, they’re social distancing and they’re that much more concerned about hand hygiene, but that remains to be seen. Dual-infection can occur, so you just have to be careful. You can’t do anything yet about vaccinating against COVID, but you can do something about the flu.”

Should you find that your Thanksgiving celebration does produce an actual medical emergency, delay dessert and head to the nearest emergency room. HCA Healthcare ERs are equipped to care for common Thanksgiving health matters such as cuts and burns, food poisoning and chest pain.

In the end, remember this from Dr. Vartian: “You certainly do not want a festive time to become the scene of something really unfortunate, where someone gets sick and ends up in the hospital. That would not be a good way to remember a family get together. Stay safe during Thanksgiving 2020. If we all continue to do our part to curb the spread of COVID-19, I’m optimistic that the 2021 holiday season will look much more normal.”

HCA Healthcare is demonstrating leadership in our behaviors both inside and outside of work so that we can stay as healthy as possible to respond to our patients. But, we can’t do this without the help of those around us. Thank you for safely celebrating the holidays this year! Find more tips and considerations from the CDC here. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies holiday-related activities at three risk levels:

Lower risk

  • Having a small in-person dinner with only those in your household
  • Delivering food to loved ones without contact
  • Virtually gathering for dinner with family and friends
  • Shopping online and watching sporting events at home

Moderate risk

  • Having a small in-person dinner outside with loved ones who live in your community
  • Doing outdoor activities or attending outdoor sporting events while wearing face masks, social distancing and using hand sanitizer

Higher risk

  • Having a large indoor gathering with people outside your household
  • Attending crowded events, like parades or races, or shopping at crowded stores

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 183 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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