En español | As distribution of COVID-19 vaccines gets underway, medical experts are emphasizing that people should continue to stay home for the winter holidays and not celebrate with those outside their own households.
Recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) underscores that travel and gatherings with others increase the chances of contracting COVID-19. There have been more than 16 million cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. and more than 300,000 people have died.
But medical experts like Brian Castrucci, an epidemiologist and president of the de Beaumont Foundation, an organization devoted to strengthening public health in communities, worry that news of the vaccine's rollout could prompt people to lower their guard when it comes to preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
"It is a great achievement that we have the vaccine,” says Castrucci, who often uses a sports analogy to help people understand that they need to remain vigilant. “Don't celebrate before the game is over. If you do, you could end up losing the game."
Though rollout of the coronavirus vaccine has begun, health care workers and long-term care residents are first in line for the vaccine, which requires two doses. It will be many months before the majority of the population has access. That's why it's even more important for people to continue to take precautions around masking, social distancing and travel, says Tom Kenyon, an epidemiologist, a former director of the CDC Center for Global Health and now the chief health officer for Project HOPE, a global health and humanitarian relief organization.
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"The virus is everywhere. This is a very precarious time,” says Kenyon. “We know that at present, most transmission is actually happening from these small gatherings.”
Travel is discouraged
Guidance from the CDC about celebrating winter holidays notes that traveling by bus, train or airplane could make staying six feet apart from others difficult, increasing the risk of contracting the virus.
According to the CDC, those who are thinking of traveling should consider:
- Whether they or someone in their household is considered high risk for COVID-19.
- If cases are high or increasing in their community or in their destination, increasing the risks of contracting and spreading the virus. The CDC's COVID Data Tracker can provide that information.
- Whether hospitals in their community or destination are already overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. To find out, check state and local public health departments.
- Requirements or restrictions for travelers around testing or quarantining in their home state or destination.
For those who decide to travel the CDC recommends:
- Getting a flu shot before you go
- Always wearing a mask in public settings, over your nose and mouth
- Washing your hands often and using hand sanitizer frequently
- If driving, pack food and limit stops
- Stay away from crowded, poorly ventilated spaces
Castrucci says he is “beyond concerned” that people will continue to ignore medical advice and will take unnecessary risks. “By choosing to visit friends and family outside of your household for Christmas, it puts you at greater risk of not being there for next Christmas,” he says.
Advice on celebrating
The CDC also recommends not gathering with people outside your own household. Testing can provide some information about whether or not someone has COVID-19, but only provides a snapshot in time and is not a guarantee of safety. If you do plan to see others outside your “bubble,” the CDC guidance says you should:
- Limit the number of guests
- Set expectations for social distancing and masking requirements ahead of time
- Stay six feet apart
- Gather outdoors, weather permitting
- Open windows and doors if celebrating indoors
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
- Bring your own food, drinks, plates, cups and utensils
Bill and Jan Lutz, both 85, say they'll get the vaccine as soon as it's available to them. But before that, it's likely the Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania, couple will celebrate Christmas on their own. Typically they gather with about 20 members of their family, but they're concerned about contracting the virus. In addition, the couple's continuing care retirement community has quarantine restrictions in place for those who come in contact with family or friends who don't live in the community. Lutz and his wife celebrated Thanksgiving alone (although with family Zoom calls) for the first time this year.
"I see the light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine and I'm willing to be one of the first to get it,” he says. “But we don't feel like we can loosen up yet.”
Kenyon says people should approach the winter holidays like the Lutzes. “People want a rationale for returning to normal behavior, but we don't have one yet,” Kenyon says.
But there are ways to put a safer spin on traditional holiday activities, according to the CDC. The guidance recommends a list of festive virtual options that range from opening gifts or doing cooking or craft projects through video chat. Other ways to bring safe festivity to the season is to drive or walk around your community to see decorations at a safe distance, attend virtual religious ceremonies or enjoy outdoor activities.
The CDC even addresses those visits to Santa. You can schedule a virtual visit to the North Pole, visit Santa Claus outdoors while wearing a mask and staying six feet away or visit Santa inside with precautions like masks and plexiglass safety windows.