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Gathering Safely During the Holidays

Dec 07, 2020

The winter months in Utah bring families together and events indoors. People often travel to multiple homes to share gifts and meals with each other. This year, families are being asked to take precautions to reduce transmission of COVID-19. Health care professionals at University of Utah Health advise Utah families to adapt and change their behaviors as transmission of COVID-19 is high across the state and the country.

Protect your family

The safest way to protect your loved ones from coronavirus during the holidays is by celebrating only with your immediate family. "With our current community transmission rates, it's strongly discouraged to gather with anyone outside your household," said Emily Spivak, MD, associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases. Household is defined as people who sleep under the same roof as you.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), small household gatherings are a key contributor to the spread of the virus. Utah's government-run coronavirus website classifies nearly the entire state under high COVID-19 transmission. This limits social gatherings to a maximum of 10 people, although infectious diseases doctors at U of U Health recommend keeping gatherings even smaller.

Pay extra attention to family members with health vulnerabilities. This includes people with underlying health conditions, older adults, and pregnant women. If high-risk individuals get exposed to or infected by the virus during the holidays, they can experience more serious complications. "My biggest concern is people not taking recommendations seriously," said Carlos Gomez, MD, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases. "If not, COVID-19 cases will peak in two weeks."

Take precautions

There's no guarantee that gathering is safe unless everyone quarantines for 14 days and has no contact with people outside their household. The next best thing is to get tested for COVID-19 and then quarantine for several days before gathering, according to Andy Pavia, MD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. However, a person could still incubate the virus, get exposed a day earlier, or test positive in the days to come. "If you get together, you are only as safe as the most cavalier person," Pavia says. "You could have done everything right, but that one person who has come in close quarters without being masked or played basketball puts everyone at risk."

The rate of COVID-19 transmission in Utah is extremely high. According to Gomez, there is a 44% rate of asymptomatic infections. The chances of someone coming into your home who has the disease is high. Due to the way infection spreads, gathering indoors can have an enormous amplifier effect. This has happened on nearly every major holiday this year. If families decide to gather for holidays without taking precautions, it will take two weeks to see an increase in hospitalizations and four weeks to see an increase in deaths.

Safe alternatives

If you cannot quarantine before gathering, there are ways you can spend time with loved ones and be distanced.

  • Have a Zoom dinner with family members or friends outside your household.
  • Open gifts on Zoom with family members or friends outside your household.
  • Coordinate a potluck-style meal by exchanging food with family, friends, or neighbors. Make sure you wash your hands before handling food and wear a mask while preparing food.
  • Go on a walk outside while masked with others.

If in-person visits are necessary, keep them short. "If you and everyone else are wearing a mask in a big living room for 15-20 minutes, that's less risky than breaking bread together," Pavia says. "If it's a big room where you can keep the windows open, that's a safer alternative."

The good news

There is an end in sight. It may not be around the corner, but a vaccine will be available soon. "There's no reason to risk people's lives in January and February when a vaccine is going to start to be available to the general public in April, May, or June," Pavia says. "That's when we'll finally see an end to this."