Whether you plan to get on a plane to visit extended family for Thanksgiving, spend time with friends and family for Christmas, or throw a New Year’s Eve party at home, many of us are preparing to gather with the people we love this holiday season.
While it might feel safer to gather this year, it doesn’t mean we should party like it’s 2016. As the weather gets colder and people are more frequently gathering indoors for dinners and holiday parties, respiratory viruses have ample opportunity to spread. It’s not just COVID-19 that you need to think about. Cases of cold/flu and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) are already increasing and beginning to strain the healthcare system. This evidence suggests we should all consider approaching the holidays with cautious optimism.
Being cautious doesn’t mean we can’t plan for safe gatherings with friends, family, and loved ones. “People can celebrate the holidays safely, provided they take precautions and use available resources like vaccines, boosters, COVID-19 tests, and take extra care not to be around others when experiencing any symptoms,” says Dr. Howard Leibrand, Skagit County Public Health Officer. “We have the tools. We just have to use them.”
Here are some ways to mitigate risk without missing out this holiday season.
Get the updated COVID-19 booster and seasonal flu vaccines.
One of the best and safest ways to protect yourself and others is to stay up to date on your vaccines. This includes receiving the seasonal flu vaccine and the new COVID-19 bivalent booster specifically designed to provide broad protection against the original COVID-19 virus and now dominant Omicron variants. Experts recommend that everyone five years and older receive the updated COVID-19 booster as long as it has been two months since their last dose. Even if you have already been infected with COVID-19 it is important to get a booster dose. Regarding the seasonal flu vaccine, everyone six months and older should receive it each season.
Skagit County Public Health provides COVID-19 vaccines at no cost and no insurance is required. Protect yourself and your loved ones by scheduling an appointment at www.skagitcounty.net/covidvaccine or by calling (360) 416-1500. To find season flu vaccine providers near you, visit www.vaccines.gov/find-vaccines.
Stay home if you have symptoms of COVID-19, the flu, or RSV.
Pay attention to symptoms in the days leading up to an event or gathering. A sore throat, runny nose, cough, fatigue, fever, and headache are all signs of respiratory illness, including COVID-19, the flu, and RSV. The guidance is clear and remains the same as it has for quite some time – stay home if you have symptoms or aren’t feeling well – even if you’re negative on a COVID-19 rapid test. Respiratory viruses can have severe consequences for young children, pregnant people, the elderly, and those who are immunocompromised.
Remember, it is still possible to have an asymptomatic case of COVID-19. You can spread the virus even if you do not have symptoms, so let’s review the recommendations about testing before gathering.
Test for COVID-19.
Testing is another great tool for preventing the spread of COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status. The question isn’t whether or not to test but when. Whether you are taking a PCR test at a clinic, or an at-home antigen test, experts say it is best to test the day before the event or gathering and also right before. If you have symptoms or were recently exposed to COVID-19, interpret a negative at-home test with caution and stay home.
Consider taking extra precautions leading up to your gathering.
For an added layer of protection, you may want to take extra precautions the week before your gathering. This might include wearing a mask in public spaces and limiting your time spent with people outside your household.
Mask up while you travel.
Although it is no longer required, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone age two and older wear a high-quality mask in indoor areas of public transportation and transportation hubs. Whether you’re taking a plane, bus, train, or waiting at a terminal to board, consider wearing a well-fitting mask.
Ventilate your space.
If it isn’t reasonable to gather or hold your event outside, increase air circulation to reduce the risk of virus transmission. Opening the windows just an inch or two brings fresh air in and improves airflow. You can also purchase a portable air purifier or make a less expensive DIY option. If your space has central heating or an HVAC system, setting the fan to the “on” position rather than “auto” allows the fan to run continuously, which also helps reduce virus transmission.
Think about others and protect the most vulnerable.
Though staying up to date with vaccines (including the seasonal flu shot) is the best way to protect people who are immunocompromised or at high risk for complications from infection, there are additional prevention actions to take to protect the most vulnerable. Testing, masking, asking others to minimize community contacts the week before gathering, improving ventilation, and making sure people stay home if sick, are all important strategies to consider if you plan to gather with individuals with a higher risk of serious illness. And don’t forget that good old-fashioned handwashing and covering your coughs and sneezes also help prevent the spread of all kinds of germs and viruses.
“Don’t be the turkey who brings COVID to the table or the Grinch who steals Christmas from a loved one!” says Dr. Leibrand, Skagit County Public Health Officer.
Despite us all feeling eager to get back to “normal”, we’ve come this far doing what we can to keep each other safe – let’s keep it going! Thank you for helping protect one another and doing what you can to steer clear of COVID-19, flu, and RSV. We wish you all a happy and healthy holiday season!