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Are We Ignoring COVID This Holiday Season?

Thoughts of the coronavirus are on the back burner for many as they celebrate

Family toasting on Christmas dinner at home
FG Trade/Getty Images

Eric Yanez and his wife, Janet, of Nashville, Tennessee, are expecting seven out-of-state family members for Thanksgiving.​

During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Yanez was cautious and only socialized with a small neighborhood bubble. While he still wears a mask sometimes — around older people, on airplanes or when required by a store or venue — this year, he has no plans to ask guests about their vaccination status for the holidays.

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“I’m not going to be the vaccine police,” says the 54-year-old business development manager. “I’m so over COVID.”

So is a lot of the country.​

According to a September 2022 Monmouth University poll, just 1 in 3 adults reported they were “very likely” to get the new bivalent booster that targets the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of omicron—even though 51 percent received previous boosters.​

The same poll also found that only 25 percent of adults support social-distancing guidelines and wearing face masks. That figure stood at 63 percent a year ago.​

Despite that, COVID hasn’t disappeared — not by a long stretch. Emerging variants and waning immunity remain a concern this winter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted in early November that COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the U.S. had been decreasing, but that the decline had slowed. In early November, the CDC was reporting more than 350 U.S. deaths per week from COVID-19. Plus cold and flu season is off to an earlier start than usual.​

Of course, there are people who have underlying conditions or special circumstances that make it impossible to forget that COVID still exists. But is the majority of society now entering a new stage where we learn to live more freely with the risk? ​

In an AARP tele-town hall on Oct. 21, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Ashish Jah, M.D., noted that “COVID is no longer front of mind for everyone.” He called this good news. “We don’t need to be in that same kind of emergency ‘thinking about COVID all the time’ phase,” he said. “And if people continue to protect themselves with vaccines and treatments, we can really put COVID behind us.”​

Returning to ‘normal’

Many people are putting thoughts of the virus on the back burner as they celebrate the holidays, even though people are still routinely getting sick. ​

Human beings are often not the best at risk assessment when it comes to something like COVID-19, but are quite adept at creating rationalizations, says Carisa Parrish, an adjunct associate professor of clinical psychology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “That’s called cognitive dissonance,” Parrish says.​

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Sometimes, when people don’t want something to be true, they think and behave in ways that reinforce — and justify — that belief. For example, those who once wore a mask religiously because of the risks associated with COVID-19 but rarely wear a mask now because they’re tired of the virus may “try to come up with some rationale” for why it’s no longer necessary, Parrish says.​

Parrish says that she can envision an increase in riskier behavior even if the holidays cause another spike in COVID cases, given how much people are itching to return to as normal a life as possible. ​

Jennifer Boettcher, 71, is doing her best to return to what feels normal. The retired reading teacher from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, who is fully vaccinated, stopped wearing a mask and has visited her unvaccinated daughter in Miami. When her son invited her to his home in California for Thanksgiving with 12 other people, the subject of COVID never even came up.​

“Life is short,” Boettcher says. “I want to spend time with people who are important to me instead of huddling alone. That’s more important.”​

According to the September Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index (the final release of a poll begun in March 2020 as the first COVID-19 cases swept the nation), just over half of Americans — 57 percent — reported being concerned about the virus. That’s the lowest number measured since the pandemic began. Nearly 2 in 3 say there is a small risk or no risk in returning to their pre-COVID lives.​

But that’s not the case for everyone. Beth Cole, of Leawood, Kansas, is spending Thanksgiving in Denver with 15 people. One of them is her 84-year-old mother who has health issues, so all guests are required to be vaccinated.​

What she says sets this holiday apart from the past two Thanksgivings is that, while continuing to take preventative measures against infection, Cole approaches the subject of COVID-19 with acceptance rather than panic.​

“It’s always kind of in the back of our minds, but we can be together without being fearful now,” says the former communications and marketing executive, 58, who has been vaccinated four times against COVID.​

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“It’s something we’re all going to have to live with,” Cole says. “There are no guarantees, but we’re going to take as many precautions as possible. We’re going to have to live our lives.”​

Precautions can help

The good news is that at this point in the pandemic, “almost everybody who is out and about either has been vaccinated or has had COVID, so we’re entering a time where people generally have had some type of immune exposure and are less likely to get desperately sick if they catch the virus,” says Del DeHart, an infectious disease specialist and medical director of the Infection Prevention Department at the University of Michigan Health–West in Wyoming, Michigan.​

DeHart suggests following the latest CDC guidelines, which include recommendations for getting vaccinated and boosted. Also, if you’re exhibiting symptoms of COVID, get tested and stay home.​

The CDC also suggests congregating in well-ventilated areas, and opening doors and windows if the weather allows. In addition, the federal agency advises wearing a well-fitting mask over your nose and mouth indoors if you’re not fully vaccinated or if you have a weakened immune system; those who are fully vaccinated should wear a mask indoors in areas with substantial or high COVID-19 transmission rates.​

But a lot will rely on individual decisions, DeHart says. “It’s hard that people are going to have to make judgment calls with family gatherings,” he says. “We need to think about who is particularly vulnerable, and how to protect them.”​

Ginger Williams is taking even more precautions than most. The college history professor from Rock Hill, South Carolina, is fully vaccinated, still wears a mask to work every day and has yet to contract COVID-19.​

“It still lingers around because people aren’t being careful enough,” says Williams, 58. “I’m taking that conservative line.”

For Thanksgiving, Williams is going to her sister’s house, where she will not be wearing a mask, given that all but one guest is fully vaccinated and boosted. That guest—her nephew—has had only one vaccine.​

“I’ll probably sit at the other end of the table from him,” she says, “and hope for the best.”​