Thanksgiving table set for a holiday gathering

COVID-Safe Holiday Gatherings: Tips for Hosts and Guests

Tracking Rising Case Counts

With Thanksgiving making a return this week, COVID-safe holiday gatherings are on many Americans’ minds. Axios recently shared some compelling statistics about Americans’ COVID vaccination status. Only 59 percent of adults have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Furthermore, only 37 percent of Americans over the age of 65 have received the booster shot, leaving millions of Americans unprotected against the coronavirus. Though children as young as five are now eligible to receive the vaccine, only 10 percent have had at least one dose. However, since these vaccinations have only been authorized for a few months, experts expect that this number will go up.

Recent surveys have indicated that 38 percent of American adults are planning to travel and 67 percent are planning to gather with friends and family for the Thanksgiving holiday. The push to get the booster shot began in early fall, but it initially focused on higher-risk groups. As studies have emerged showing that the effectiveness of the vaccine begins to taper over time, the government has made more vaccine doses available to provide boosters to the wider population. However, time is of the essence. Travel has already begun to pick up and will peak this week.

COVID infections have increased by roughly 14 percent in recent weeks, and the virus continues to kill more than 1,000 people every day. The CDC is now urging everyone to get vaccinated or to get the booster shot. The level of risk posed by the holidays depends on whether you’re vaccinated and also varies by the region of the U.S. you’re in. Although vaccinated people can still contract the virus, very few result in illness leading to hospitalization or death.

Traveling for Holiday Gatherings

Mayo Clinic has shared some useful general guidance regarding travel during COVID. Before you travel, ask yourself if this trip is necessary or if it could be delayed a few months until the virus has lost momentum. If this travel is voluntary, you might want to reconsider your travel dates. If you are not yet fully vaccinated, you might also want to wait until you’ve received the full dose of the vaccine. If you’ve been vaccinated, waiting until you’ve received the booster might also be a wise decision.

If you are at higher risk for contracting illnesses, or if someone in your immediate household is at higher risk, you may want to put off travel until vaccination rates are higher and infection rates are lower. As many people have come to learn, you can catch the virus and show no symptoms but could still have passed it on to others.

Be aware that major U.S. airlines require that all passengers wear masks for the duration of their travel time. Other forms of transportation, such as trains and buses, also require masks. Following social distance guidelines of keeping six feet between you and other passengers is strongly recommended and strictly enforced by most transportation providers.

Wherever your destination may be, be aware of local laws and regulations relating to COVID. Some state, local, and territorial governments have requirements such as mandating that people wear masks or get tested and requiring those who recently traveled to stay home for up to 14 days. If you arrive at your location and face a 14-day quarantine, you could be in for a much longer visit than you anticipated.

Hosting Holiday Gatherings for Your Friends and Family

Holiday gatherings are the perfect time for catching up with family and friends. They’re also the perfect time for catching viruses like influenza, norovirus, and coronavirus. As COVID-19 continues to expand its impact on people of all ages, it’s more important than ever to approach family gatherings with caution and awareness. Taking precautions before, during, and after your holiday gatherings can help protect everyone from taking home an unwanted illness.

Many families who gave up holiday get-togethers last year have vowed that 2021 would be the chance to make up for that missed time. They are planning to enjoy festivities with loved ones instead of being fearful. Vaccines have made it easier to travel and plan for holiday events, but as we are learning, vaccines are not 100 percent foolproof. Changes in the virus, such as the Delta variant, have renewed concerns and warnings to be safe when meeting those who don’t reside in your immediate household.

The CDC recommends gathering with family members who reside in your home as the safest choice. If you want to include family who don’t live with you, you might consider gathering virtually. Modern technology affords us the opportunity to see people who live a few streets away or who live around the world in real time. Virtual gatherings can be just as meaningful as in person ones, and they usually involve far less clean up afterward.

If you choose to hold your gatherings in person this year, the following information may be helpful in keeping your family and friends safe from colds, flus, or even coronavirus.

Preparing for Holiday Gatherings

Regular household cleaning is usually enough to keep down germs and protect members of your family against typical cold and flu viruses. However, in the time of COVID, taking a few extra precautions and paying special attention to specific areas of your home are wise steps to take.

To get your home ready for guests, use a household cleaner that contains soap or detergent. This ensures that most of the germs and virus particles are removed from surfaces. Unless someone has been in your home within the last 24 hours and tested positive for COVID-19, more vigorous disinfection isn’t necessary.

To make sure your home is ready, follow these simple guidelines from the CDC for keeping holiday gatherings in your home safe:

  • High-touch surface areas should be cleaned daily. These are areas such as doorknobs, handles, drawer pulls, light switches, tables, and countertops.
  • Areas such as kitchen sinks, garbage cans, bathroom sinks, and toilets are collection points for germs and should be cleaned and disinfected daily, especially if you have people in your home who may have weakened immune systems.
  • Clean surfaces using a product suitable for each surface, following instructions on the product label.
  • If you have guests attending who have not been fully vaccinated, ask them to wear a mask except for when they are eating or drinking.

Enjoying Holiday Gatherings Safely as a Host

Encourage guests to keep their hands clean and disinfected by providing antibacterial soaps near sinks and placing hand sanitizer throughout your home. Make sure you are washing your hands and using sanitizer regularly to protect yourself and alleviate worry among your guests. It’s also a good idea to enable guests to socially distance. Especially if guests haven’t been vaccinated, it’s best if they can sit six feet apart. Holding events outside is safer than inside, but weather conditions may not make that feasible, so be sure that your indoor space has good ventilation and install new filters for the air circulation system.

When handling food, be sure to minimize possible pathogen presence. Thaw and cook items properly to avoid potential bacterial contamination. For example, turkey should thaw in water that is cooler than 40 degrees and with the water changed every 30 minutes. When cooking the turkey, it needs to reach 165 degrees for a minimum of 15 seconds to avoid the risk of salmonella. Other items and meats like ham, beef, or seafood also require careful handling and preparation. It’s never a bad idea to wear gloves when preparing and serving food.

Holiday beverages such as eggnog and apple cider can also pose dangers. Eggnog sitting out at room temperature is at risk of developing bacteria that can make family members very ill. Be sure to refrigerate eggnog and serve it cold to avoid passing bacteria to your guests. While pasteurized apple cider poses no risk, many stores sell unpasteurized apple cider that can also contain bacteria that causes severe illness. Carefully read the labels when making your beverage choices.

When your meal is over, be sure to wrap all the leftovers securely. It is also important to refrigerate them within 2 hours to avoid contamination and bacteria, especially if you’re sending food home with your guests.

Enjoying Holiday Gatherings Safely as a Guest

If you’re attending a holiday gathering, it’s a good idea to take your well-being into consideration. Even if you’re fully vaccinated, you might want to take a mask with you in case not everyone in attendance is also vaccinated.  You can also ask the host or hostess beforehand if the other guests are vaccinated, if there will be social distancing, and if they hosts will be encouraging the use of masks. You may even want to bring a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you should there be none available when you arrive.

Use your best judgement when it comes to the food being served. If something seems suspect, politely pass on having any. There is no need to put yourself at risk of food poisoning just to be polite. Your best judgement is a useful tool for interacting with others as well. Ultimately, you are responsible for your health and well-being. Taking simple precautions can ensure you have a good time during the event and in the days that follow.

Ensuring Safety after Your Holiday Gathering

If you hosted the event, you’ll want to clean thoroughly again. Once again, focus on high-touch areas like knobs, handles, counters, and tables. Wash dishes, silverware, and serving pieces in hot, soapy water or in a dishwasher. Use a household cleaner to wipe down light switches, bathroom sinks and faucets, and toilet flush handles or buttons. Be sure to dispose of remaining trash in waste baskets.

If one of your guests becomes ill following the get-together, notify your other guests right away. If it’s nothing more than a cold, your guests will appreciate the notice. If the illness is more serious, you and your family and guests should be tested within five to seven days. Anyone who has not been vaccinated should be tested immediately. If the result is negative, they should be tested again within five to seven days. Anyone who was exposed to the virus should quarantine, even if they are not showing symptoms of the virus. If the test results are positive, the person should remain in isolation for at least two weeks.

Enjoying Holiday Gatherings All Season Long      

Our world has been forced to change dramatically because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Canceling or postponing weddings, graduations, and holiday gatherings due to safety concerns has become commonplace. Almost every person has felt the frustrations and consequences of these cancellations. These challenges have been made more difficult by the tremendous loss caused by this virus. Seeing loved ones seems like the perfect solution to the chaos and insecurity of the past few years.

It’s important to be aware of the risks and the need for caution before planning a holiday get-together. A few simple precautions can ensure that you and your friends and family remain safe and healthy, so you’ll be healthy and happy at celebrations for many years to come.

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