Family doing a video call at Thanksgiving table As we approach another holiday season impacted by COVID-19, there are certainly reasons to celebrate – the FDA recently extended Pfizer-BioNTech’s current emergency use authorization to include children ages 5-11, vaccination rates continue to rise at home and around the world, and the latest trends show decreasing transmission of the virus in the United States.

However, the coast is not clear. There continues to be widespread transmission of COVID-19 in our communities both regionally and nationally, and the presence of variants means the rules are always changing. Last year taught us that the holiday season can be a time of increased viral transmission. So it’s important that we remain vigilant in our efforts to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, particularly as colder weather drives people indoors where the virus is more likely to spread. We must also consider members of our family and close friends who aren’t vaccinated, including children under 5 who are not yet eligible, and individuals with weak immune systems who are not able to either receive or respond to vaccination.

As you plan for holiday events this year, brush up on the latest recommendations below, and visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website to get more information about protecting yourself and your family during the holiday season.

Give the gift of vaccination

The best way to protect against COVID-19 is by getting yourself and eligible family members vaccinated. Now that children ages 5-11 are eligible for vaccination, they will soon be able to safely resume many of their pre-pandemic activities, including attending indoor gatherings with others who are also fully vaccinated, according to the CDC’s latest recommendations for vaccinated individuals.

If you are vaccinated and plan to attend an indoor public event, like a holiday concert or performance, wear an effective mask, particularly if you live in a community with substantial or high COVID-19 transmission. Avoid places that are poorly ventilated and overly crowded. Remember, children under 2 should not wear a mask, so it’s safest to stick to outdoor activities for the littlest ones.

Communicate clearly: Advice for navigating difficult conversations

You may have people in your life who don’t feel COVID-19 safety precautions are necessary this year. Be clear with them about your expectations. These conversations can be difficult, but having them ahead of time can help ensure a joyous event, while helping to stop the spread of COVID-19.

It may be helpful to remember that questions about vaccination status are not uncommon these days as people plan or decide whether to attend gatherings. In thinking about how to approach the topic with friends and loved ones, you might say, “I’m asking guests whether they’re vaccinated so I’ll know how to plan,” or “I’m fully vaccinated but prefer to wear my mask around those who aren’t. That way everyone stays safe.”

Yesenia Marroquin, PhD, clinical psychologist at CHOP, recommends planning these conversations well ahead of the holidays and seeking guidance from your pediatrician on how to have them.

“Think through how you’re going to manage your own emotional intensity when you receive this information and how it’s going to inform your choices,” Dr. Marroquin says. “The role that we signed up for in having children is being models for them. As much as there can be the urge to say unkind things when emotions get high, if what we’re wanting is to teach managing emotions so we can remain effective, then it’s going to be important to be that model for our kids.”

Here are some ways to keep difficult conversations productive:

  • Open the conversation by disclosing your own vaccination status and sharing why vaccination is important to you, while acknowledging that the other person may not share your perspective.
  • Stick with the facts and avoid shaming others. Shame doesn’t change behavior in any positive way, and it can hurt the relationship.
  • Make your boundaries clear and remember that you’re not asking for permission. Let others know what actions you are taking to stay healthy, whether that’s avoiding events with people who aren’t fully vaccinated or asking guests to wear masks in your home. Remind all potential guests that you don’t want to have a visit if they have any symptoms of acute illness.

Travel thoughtfully

You can travel safely if you’re vaccinated, but wear your mask; they’re mandatory on public transportation and in airports and other transportation hubs. The CDC recommends against traveling if you are not vaccinated.

If you are not vaccinated and must travel, please follow as many safety precautions as you can, including keeping physically distant from others, wearing a mask and washing your hands frequently.

If unvaccinated family or friends will be joining your household to celebrate the holidays, ask them to get tested with a viral test one to three days before their visit. If they are coming from a community with substantial-to-high levels of infection, you may also want to ask them to self-quarantine for 10 days before arriving to your home. This voluntary quarantine period could be shortened to seven days if they remain asymptomatic and get another test with negative results 5-7 days after the start of quarantine.

This is especially important for guests who will be taking flights or long bus/train rides; these types of travel may increase the risk of potential COVID-19 exposure ahead of your event. To be safest, quarantine should occur AFTER traveling and BEFORE interacting with others.

Set guidelines for in-person gatherings

If you’re hosting this season and it’s not possible to limit your guest list to those who are vaccinated, please follow as many safety practices as you can to lower risk.

  • Strongly encourage all guests to wear their masks at all times except when actively eating or drinking.
  • Keep windows open to increase ventilation.
  • Set up smaller tables — or staggered seating — where individual households can eat together with their masks off and yet remain physically distant from others who don’t live with them.
  • Designate one person (wearing a face mask and gloves) to serve the food. By having only one person serving the food, cross-contamination on utensils and serving dishes can be minimized.
  • Cover food when it is not actively being served. This will keep the food warm while also avoiding any nearby germs.
  • Encourage guests to clean up after themselves and their immediate family. This limits the number of people touching potentially contaminated items. Consider disposable items like utensils and napkins that can be thrown away after the meal.
  • Be aware that drinking alcohol lowers inhibitions and may make guests become lax with masking and physical distancing recommendations.

Skip physical contact

While it may have been a long time since you’ve seen some family members, now is not the time for unvaccinated people to exchange hugs, kisses and handshakes with members of another household. Getting too close to people outside of your household increases everyone’s chances of getting COVID-19. Unvaccinated older relatives and those with compromised immune systems may be particularly vulnerable, but anyone can become infected with COVID-19.

Expand your options

If you can’t be with the ones you love in person, consider these alternatives to an in-person gathering.

Eat together virtually

Set up your phone, tablet or computer and encourage your family and friends to connect via video. It won’t be exactly the same as being together, but you will still be able to experience familiar sights and sounds. Coupled with tasting and smelling traditional foods, the full experience will help you remember past holidays together and allow you to make plans for future gatherings. If you live close to dear friends or family, consider delivering a special dish so your family can be represented at your loved ones’ meal.

Share recipes before the meal

Encourage your family and friends to share recipes they’ve made or enjoyed at previous family gatherings. Everyone can try a few new recipes or old standbys on the day of the celebration and share their results virtually.

Honor family traditions

Think about your family’s holiday gatherings. Are there small traditions you can still do virtually? Perhaps saying grace together or making a toast. Honor past traditions and consider adding new ones that can be practiced virtually this year, but may continue to be impactful in future, in-person gatherings.

By working together and caring for each other, we can help ensure many more holidays spent together.

Susan E. Coffin, MD, MPH, is an Attending Physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She is an expert in pandemic influenzas.

Yesenia A. Marroquin, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.


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