For the first time in two years, Michelle Cromer will gather in person with a big group of loved ones to celebrate Thanksgiving.
But before that happens, she has asked everyone on her invite list to make sure they’re vaccinated against COVID-19. Cromer, 61, of El Paso, Texas, and her husband knew that some guests might object.
“We decided that for the safety of the other majority of the guests, we needed to go ahead and make this a priority,” she says.
Cromer isn’t alone in asking guests to take precautions against the coronavirus this year. Nearly two years into the pandemic and after pared-down or virtual celebrations of the recent past, many are celebrating with family and friends again.
“Things look very different than they did at this time last year,” says Shira Doron, M.D., an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
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 the delta variant means that precautions should still be taken, Doron says, requiring sometimes-tricky discussions about virus safety and comfort levels.
‘I had to uninvite her’
Cromer started by alerting her holiday guests that they’d need to be vaccinated.
In October she sent out a group email informing invitees of the rules and 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.
As a result, her brother will stay home in Dallas with his wife and miss the annual gathering for the first time in 20 years (with the exception of the pandemic-induced break). Fortunately, there were no hard feelings, Cromer says. The family plans to do a Zoom call with missing guests during their gathering to allow them to feel “part of it and give them the chance to say hi to everybody,” she says.
Medical experts caution that people shouldn’t cast COVID safety precautions by the wayside this holiday season. Given the fact that COVID-19 is still here, “in an ideal scenario, everyone at your celebration would be vaccinated,” says HealthCentral epidemiologist Rashid Chotani, M.D.
And if you’re eligible for a booster shot, Doron says that getting one before the holidays (and encouraging your guests to do so) is a good way to make sure your body is producing a maximized immune response to the virus.
COVID testing is another smart precaution to consider before your holiday gathering, and some hosts are asking guests take a PCR test in the days before arriving or a rapid antigen test on-site. Annie Sisk, 55, of Binghamton, New York, is medically vulnerable and lives with her daughter. They’ve invited two vaccinated friends over and will ask them to have a negative COVID test before attending.
“I plan to simply present it as a matter-of-fact thing, like, ‘Of course you’re vaccinated, and you’ll get a test before you come over, right?’ ” Sisk explains. Because these are fairly close friends, she won’t require proof of a negative PCR test and feels comfortable taking her guests’ word for it.
While a negative test is not a guarantee someone isn’t carrying the virus, it does add a layer of safety, Doron notes. “You can be contagious and have a negative rapid test. There's sort of a misconception about that. But a test is better than no test.”
A rapid antigen test, Doron explains, 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.
If you have guests testing on-site, have a plan in place in case a test is positive. And remind people to stay home if they feel sick or “have any symptoms whatsoever, regardless of whether they're vaccinated,” Doron cautions.
Communicate COVID-19 expectations early
If you are hosting this holiday season, let guests know in advance how you plan to handle coronavirus precautions.
“Explain this is your way to stay safe, you hope they will understand and you will understand if they choose not to come,” 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.
When Cromer notified her guests, 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. 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.’ ”
When holiday celebrations take place, people should consider returning to some of the social distancing measures that were popular during the height of the pandemic, Doron says. With delta circulating and guests traveling from locations that might be having COVID flare-ups — as well as their possible exposure during a journey by plane, train or bus — it’s wise to minimize risks.
Chotani recommends that guests wear masks indoors unless eating, to reduce everyone's possible COVID exposure. You can also open windows or run an air purifier to get some air circulation inside.
Adrienne Lenhoff, 53, is taking her daughter to Florida to visit her parents and 100-year-old grandfather for Hanukkah. “We will get COVID tests and wait out the results before we see anyone there,” she says. Lenhoff and her daughter plan to take a PCR test upon landing and another several days later.
She and her daughter will “see everyone, but only outdoors until we have two negative PCRs and then will be indoors unmasked,” she says. They will also double-mask and wear face shields on the plane, to minimize their COVID exposure while traveling.
Along with having a vaccination mandate, Cromer is hosting her Thanksgiving dinner outdoors.
“To assure all our guests are as comfortable as they can be, we will be setting up numerous tables throughout our gardens so that everyone can enjoy our signature dishes in the warm West Texas air,” she says.
Marshall Thompson, 79, who recently moved to Las Vegas, and his family will eat meals, give gifts and socialize — both indoors and on the patio — wearing masks except when eating. He trusts his loved ones to be proactive about keeping the holidays safe. “As I will only be with my nearest and dearest, rapid tests or PCR tests will be at their individual discretion,” he says.
But if you’re feeling anxious about hosting or attending a gathering, there is no shame in celebrating remotely.
Shawanda Vickers, 54, of Fort Lee, New Jersey, and her extended family will get together virtually again this year. “Not all of us are vaccinated; therefore, we chose to not have an in-person celebration as a precaution,” she says.
The decision did not cause any family strife but was something they had to discuss. Her clan will Zoom with relatives across the United States, all enjoying a soul food spread. “Each home host will agree to have the holiday feast ready at the same time,” she say, “so we can pray, eat and dance together via cyberspace.”
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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.