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How to celebrate Christmas safely as COVID-19 cases spike

Find out what the CDC and an infectious disease expert suggest for the holiday season.

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Holiday celebrations will have to change for people to stay safe this year.

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

As someone who normally looks forward to the holiday season, I can't help but feel a sense of disappointment as it approaches this year. Holiday traditions, like gathering with friends and family to eat and drink, and all of the safety protocols in place for the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases just don't mesh well together. 

But just because the holidays won't look the same this year as others, there are still ways to celebrate Christmas and New Year's safely, according to the CDC Holiday Guidelines and other health authorities.

As important as the holidays are for many people, they also pose a lot of health risks during a global pandemic. "The holidays are higher risk activities for a couple of reasons," says Dr. Sandra Kesh, infectious disease expert and physician at WestMed Medical Group. "Generally you're having family from other areas come together, so you're going beyond your household. And anytime there is a social event and alcohol is involved, which most people enjoy during the holidays, there's that risk for looser behavior," says Dr. Kesh.

For most people, the safest decisions for themselves or those around them may be forgoing gatherings, travel, parties and visits altogether. Even if you are not a high-risk individual for severe illness with COVID-19, if you were to be exposed right before the holidays, you will need to have a plan in place to self-isolate from others. 

The risk of gathering with friends and family can change depending on the number of cases in your city or community. If cases are spiking where you or your family lives, that will increase the risk of transmitting the virus during a holiday gathering. Keep reading below to find out what the CDC and Dr. Kesh suggest you do to stay safe this holiday season. Remember that these are guidelines to mitigate risk. The only way to ensure you don't spread the virus or become infected at a holiday meal or party is to not attend in person.

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Air travel remains a high-risk activity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Is it safe to visit people during the holidays?

The holiday season and travel typically go hand in hand. But this year, making the decision to travel is not as simple. Travel (especially air travel) is still a high-risk activity, according to health authorities and doctors, like Dr. Kesh.

The CDC stresses that the only truly safe way to see people during the holidays is by celebrating with people you currently live with. "The more you go outside of your immediate household, the greater the risk," says Dr. Kesh. The safest way to gather is with smaller groups, ideally outside. And if you can't keep your gatherings outside, social distancing and masks become even more of a priority. 

If you do decide to gather with people who are outside of your household or from another area, Dr. Kesh suggests having those people prepare for visiting by isolating themselves before the gathering. "Ideally everyone should really isolate a couple of weeks before they get together and limit their contact with other people and if they are going out, to be careful with masks and social distancing. If everyone follows those rules for the couple of weeks before Christmas, that certainly lowers your risk once everyone does come together," Dr. Kesh says.

Keep in mind that many states have protocols for those traveling from a high-risk area. If you are traveling from a high-risk state to visit loved ones, you will have to check the state and local guidelines. You may be required to quarantine for 14 days and be tested before you are able to see other people. That adds significant amounts of time that you will need to consider before planning to travel to and from a high-risk area.

The CDC points out that not all groups of people can adhere to the same safety guidelines for holiday celebrations. People who are considered high-risk for severe illness from contracting COVID-19, like the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions and immunocompromised people, should not join gatherings this holiday season. If you are not considered high-risk personally, but live with people who are, you should also opt out of holiday gatherings. 

As disappointing as it seems, this is literally a life or death scenario that is going to require sacrifice from all people to keep everyone safe until the pandemic subsides. Other people who should not go to or host holiday gatherings are those with COVID-19 symptoms, people who have been exposed to the virus and those who are awaiting test results

Best practices for safety at holiday gatherings 

If you are attending gatherings with friends or family this holiday season, the CDC first encourages people to opt for virtual celebrations or spending time with your own household. If you don't decide to stick with these guidelines, know that other types of gatherings come with risk. 

In order to mitigate that risk you can try to hold events outdoors with weather permits, keep groups small and adhere to social distancing and mask wearing, no matter the location. Dr. Kesh also suggests that kids wear masks while playing with other kids or interacting with guests. "Kids can carry this [virus] and not be symptomatic," Dr. Kesh says. 

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If you're set on having an indoor meal, use masks and socially distancing to minimize the risks.

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Eating and drinking is usually the focal point of many holiday gatherings, but it increases the risk of transmitting the coronavirus. "I don't think sitting around the table with people outside of your household is a great idea because masks are going to be off. We do know that there's aerosol spread of this, too," Dr. Kesh says. Because the virus can sometimes be spread through the air, if you are gathering inside, it's important to keep the air moving with fans, open windows or air filtration systems. This is even more important if you have a number of people gathering in a smaller space.

Finally, Dr. Kesh suggests limiting alcohol at gatherings or at least designating one or more people who will not drink so they can ensure everyone stays safe, keeps their masks on and social distances. "The social events where people start drinking, all the rules go out the window. Everyone gets comfortable. The masks come off. Everyone gets closer. So I think maybe having one designated person in the family be the monitor and everyone understands that they enforce the rules and everyone abides by the rules," says Dr. Kesh.

While this year's holiday aren't going to look like previous years for many people, your health and the health of the people you care about should take precedent over gathering in person. By staying home to slow the spread, you increase the odds that everyone will be able to celebrate in person again when the pandemic ends.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.