Ways for you and your family to stay safe
More than 280,000 Americans had died of COVID-19 as of early December, and 95 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have occurred among people who were 50 or older, and preexisting conditions such as obesity, heart disease, autoimmune diseases and type 2 diabetes make the coronavirus infection even riskier.
We have isolated ourselves for more than nine months, and the psychological toll of COVID is still very real. A study from early in the pandemic found “moderate” and “severe” depression symptoms had tripled, and this holiday we are missing our friends and loved ones more than ever.
So how can we safely celebrate the holidays at the end of such a long and lousy year?
Here are some questions we can ask ourselves this holiday, to help us navigate the season safely and warmly.
1. A relative had COVID-19 several weeks ago. Can they still make me sick?
People who have had the virus generally stop spreading it 10 to 14 days after exhibiting symptoms. However, the more we learn about the coronavirus, the more twists and turns are discovered. For that reason, anyone who has contracted the virus, or thinks they’ve been exposed, should be cleared by a doctor before seeing anyone.
2. I tested positive for COVID earlier this year. Does that mean I'm immune now?
Unfortunately, they don't know the answer to that. People who recover from the virus do have some level of acquired immunity, but it's difficult to know how much or for how long. Research is conflicting: A study of 1,100 COVID patients in the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients had no decline in antibodies four months after diagnosis. But a separate study found antibodies peaking 60 days after diagnosis and declining thereafter. Additionally, there have been a handful of widely reported cases of people contracting the virus more than once.
The severity of one's infection may determine subsequent antibody levels and how long they last. One study of COVID-19 patients in China who had zero symptoms found significantly lower antibody levels than in patients with symptoms. Common sense would point to asymptomatic people being more vulnerable to reinfection because of low or no antibodies, but they still don't know enough about what antibody level is required to protect people from COVID-19.
3. Is catching the coronavirus linked to how much time we spend together?
The amount of exposure you have to the virus — both in terms of how sick another person is and how much time you spend with him or her — does appear to determine your risk, says Thomas Fekete, M.D., professor of microbiology and immunology at Temple University. That's why so many health care providers have gotten sick, especially at the start of the pandemic, when they had inadequate personal protective equipment.
While there are no established guidelines, Fekete suggests modeling how you handle indoor spaces on the policies in place at Temple's medical school: More than 15 minutes of exposure to another person is “meaningful,” while fewer than 15 minutes of exposure is less worrisome. “We're less concerned if someone rides an elevator with someone for 30 seconds than if he or she shares a small space with someone for an hour,” he says. “Our policy also mandates wearing a mask and eye protection. That said, there are no guarantees."
Which is why holiday gatherings so problematic. An infected person could throw off more virus when talking than when breathing.
4. We've already had a bad outbreak in my town. Have we reached herd immunity?
As the pandemic has progressed, you may have heard about getting the U.S. population to a point where enough people have been exposed to the virus — either by infection or vaccine — that it's no longer a threat. This “herd immunity” is a real thing — the U.S. all but eradicated measles because an effective vaccine created herd immunity. However, herd immunity requires somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 to 70 percent of the population having immunity, and epidemiology studies have gone on to tell us that even in the worst areas like New York, it's in the 20 percent range, and in most areas in the 3 to 10 percent range. A COVID-19 vaccine could change that, but again, we're nowhere near that point.
5. If I do host a holiday gathering, are there any rules I should put in place for my family?
Here's a good rule of thumb: Nobody gets to come to dinner unless he or she has had a flu shot. The reasons go far beyond the usual in 2020. Flu and COVID-19 symptoms are similar, so if you become ill with the flu, it could necessitate a trip to the doctor or even the hospital, which puts you at additional risk. And yes, it's possible to get both, either one after the other, or simultaneously.
6. My whole family is in excellent health. Does COVID-19 really pose a threat to us?
Researchers cannot predict how sick any one person will get if infected by the coronavirus. Recent research out of Stanford suggests that patients with more severe COVID-19 symptoms tend to have higher levels of certain inflammatory molecules in their blood.
What you can do is to watch out for yourself and your family, and set a strong example for others you know who may not be as enthusiastic about spreading the virus.
7. Are our holiday traditions ruined?
After a year of distancing and isolation the pressure to gather for the holidays will be tempting, but staying diligent with isolation and precautions. It would be tragic to get even one family member or friend (or yourself!) sick. Remember: An August wedding in Maine was linked to 178 COVID cases and eight deaths — and none of those who died even attended the event.
The good news is that there is a great deal of optimism for 2021. There are more than 400 clinical trials of new antiviral drugs, new biologic agents like monoclonal antibodies, and different steroid strategies in the works. With more than 10 vaccines in phase 3 clinical trials. So, hang in there!
Suggestions for How to Celebrate
Determine what you’d like your holiday to feel/look like this year and set the stage. Granted, the big family gathering may be out of the question, but why not take a more global approach? Instead of only gathering locally, why not set-up a virtual holiday party with friends and family from around the globe! Call your cousin in Australia, include your uncle in Florida, this is the year we can all be together. Everyone knows how to video conference by now. Be it Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Skype, encourage everyone to set their table(s) and tune-in at a specific time.
If events are your thing, discover the new world of virtual entertainment. Granted many of the live concerts and events we have come to know and love at the holidays have been cancelled, but instead we now have a smorgasbord of virtual options from around the world! Try searching Eventbrite, Billboard.com, or ‘virtual worldwide events.’ You can attend virtual conferences, tour museums, see the ballet, even the Metropolitan Opera, right from your living room. Yes, there’s still a cost, but because no one is fighting for a seat, prices are drastically lower than what you’d pay for a live performance.
Take Care of Yourself and Your Community
More than ever, this holiday is about being thankful. Instead of worrying about fancy gifts and elaborate dinner parties, think about ways to give back to your community, to your friends and neighbors, and those less fortunate. Many have lost their jobs, their homes, and their loved ones over the last six months. This is not the year to be selfish.
Holiday Gathering Safety Checklist
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