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Should You Ask Holiday Guests to Get Vaccinated and Take COVID Tests?​

As people celebrate together again, some are still putting pandemic precautions in place

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During this year's holiday season many revelers want to celebrate but are concerned about the triple threat of COVID-19, cold and flu. Some hosts are contemplating whether to ask their guests to take COVID-19 tests before getting together to help avoid coronavirus infection.

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Last year, Michelle Cromer required her Thanksgiving guests to be vaccinated.
Courtesy Michelle Cromer

Michelle Cromer gathered with friends and family for Thanksgiving for the second year in a row. Last year, she required that guests be vaccinated against COVID-19, and she even uninvited her sister-in-law, who wasn’t up to date with her shots at the time.

This year she didn’t have to worry — all 16 of her guests were vaccinated. 

Cromer, 62, of El Paso, Texas, says she’d feel uncomfortable hosting unvaccinated people and would feel guilty if someone at her table got COVID-19 and became seriously ill. “I feel really comfortable as a host knowing that that level of protection exists among my guests, but I cannot say the same for a guest that’s not vaccinated,” she says. “And I don’t want to take that kind of responsibility.” 

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In past years, COVID-19 surges stood in the way of many people’s holiday plans. But as people have started assembling again, hosts are grappling with the right approach. Some have dropped all precautions, but others are wondering: Should they ask guests to be vaccinated or to take COVID tests? 

“As we enter the holiday season, it is still unclear if we will see another winter surge, and if so, what that surge may look like,” says David. M. Souleles, director of the COVID-19 Response Team at the University of California, Irvine, and director of the university’s master’s degree program in public health. 

In general, he says, people are gathering more this year than last, and people are masking less, which creates opportunities for virus transmission. And compared to last year, many are prioritizing at-home testing in lieu of PCR tests that are reported to public health officials. That means the current case counts in the United States are likely understated, Souleles says. 

Holiday COVID approaches

Despite improving conditions, some holiday hosts are asking about vaccine status or requiring testing as a prerequisite for going back to pre-pandemic celebrations. The continued presence of COVID-19 and all its variants means that precautions should still be taken.

“The steps you can take to protect yourself and your family this year are the same as they have been in the past year,” Souleles says. This includes keeping up on vaccinations, including the bivalent booster, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people get two months after their last dose of vaccine, either a final primary series or original booster dose. “This booster specifically targets the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, which are currently circulating in the United States in addition to the original variant,” Souleles says.

Precautions are particularly important for older people, says Shira Doron, M.D., an infectious disease physician and a hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

“Especially if you are over the age of 65 or have underlying medical conditions, the best thing you can do before gathering for the holidays is to make sure you are up to date on your COVID vaccination,” Doron says. And while vaccines may not be as preventive as they once were, she says they are still doing a good job of preventing severe disease. She also suggests getting a flu shot.

The other good news is that for those who catch COVID-19, it is now easier to access treatments, like Paxlovid, that can help reduce symptom severity and risk of hospitalization.

Testing before a gathering can help ease anxieties. A rapid antigen test, Doron says, will pick up higher levels of the coronavirus and reveal if someone is very contagious. A PCR test is more sensitive and will catch a lower viral load earlier in someone’s infection and can be taken a few days before a get-together. While a negative test is not a guarantee someone isn’t carrying the virus, it does add a layer of safety, Doron notes.

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And if you are planning to gather, outdoors is always better than indoors, if possible, Souleles says.

Communicate expectations early

But it can be uncomfortable to ask people about their vaccination status or tell them you’re requiring holiday guests to take rapid tests to make sure they’re virus free. If you are hosting this holiday season, let guests know in advance how you plan to handle coronavirus precautions.

Last year, Cromer sent a group email to her invitees in October asking them to reply with copies of their vaccination cards. “When I did do that, I discovered that my sister-in-law was, in fact, not vaccinated. So I had to uninvite her,” Cromer says.

The way you shape that discussion can affect the way guests respond, says Gail Saltz, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medicine and host of the How Can I Help? podcast. She suggests sending out a group email laying out the rules. ​

“Explain this is your way to stay safe, you hope they will understand, and you understand if they choose not to come,” Saltz says.

​When Cromer notified her guests last year, she used what she calls “the sandwich approach” by opening with her excitement about the holiday, then explaining her COVID expectations and closing by inquiring whether guests were craving any particular dish she could provide. ​“So it was not just like, ‘Give me your vaccine card or don’t come,’ ” Cromer says. ​​

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If guests push back, turn the focus on yourself and your concerns about keeping everyone safe, says Anisha Patel-Dunn, D.O., a practicing psychiatrist and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health: “You could position your feedback as … ‘I would feel uncomfortable hosting you and putting you at risk knowing that you’re unvaccinated.’ ” ​

At-risk people may feel differently

Immunocompromised people may have to take a stricter approach.

Annie Sisk, 56, of Binghamton, New York, is medically vulnerable and lives with her daughter. This year, she and her daughter celebrated Thanksgiving at home together, without guests.

“I don’t feel comfortable letting anyone inside our home since COVID is definitely not over and so many people haven’t been boosted fully and so many more are behaving in really questionable ways as if the virus just vanished,” she says. “I don’t feel safe, being diabetic and having hypertension. Those conditions are controlled, but I’m not taking any chances.”

Doron recommends people with risk factors for severe COVID-19, like a preexisting condition, go into their holiday season with a plan to get tested and treated for COVID-19 if symptoms develop.

“That means having tests on hand, knowing that repeated testing is necessary since the test can be negative in the first few days of symptoms, knowing if you are able to take Paxlovid (people on certain medications cannot) and knowing how you will get it. Talk to your doctor before you get infected,” she says.

It’s also a good idea to work out any extra precautions you may need to take around at-risk loved ones. In 2021, Anne Lenholm, 54, took her daughter to Florida to visit her parents and 101-year-old grandfather for Hanukkah. They masked up on the plane and took PCR tests upon landing and waited out the results before going to see her family.

This year, she planned another trip with her daughter, with a stopover to see her parents and grandfather in Florida again this Hanukkah. “I am going to have us do the visit with family first, putting into place similar protocol to what we had last year,” she says. “If my parents and grandfather want to waive it, we will. Otherwise, I want to make sure with numbers rising again, that we aren’t the ones to infect them.”

Other people are taking comfort in the fact that they’ve been vaccinated or likely exposed and will be gathering more confidently. Last year for Thanksgiving, David Hampshere enjoyed a video chat with his children during the holidays; this year, he was excited to get back out to celebrate. He attended dinner at a niece’s house, followed by a walk along the beach. Not all of his family members are vaccinated, but having received his booster shot, Hampshere felt safe around them.

“I don’t ask people around me to get vaccinations; I take care of my own health, including vaccinations,” he says. “However, I stay careful by keeping a distance from strangers whenever possible.” 

What to Say When Asking if Someone Is Vaccinated

Editor's note: This article was originally published on November 11, 2021. It has been updated to reflect new information.

Nicole Pajer is a contributing writer who covers health, culture and entertainment. She has also written for The New York Times, Parade, Woman’s Day and Wired.

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