The Holidays Are Coming. Does The COVID-19 Pandemic Mean You Should Skip Even Small Family Gatherings? What Experts Say.
Oct 22, 2020
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Dr. Eric Cioe-Peña and his wife come from large families and typically split the holiday festivities, getting together with one group of relatives for Thanksgiving and another one at Christmas.
This year, they’ll reluctantly keep their distance from both.
"We’re going to have to make sacrifices," said Cioe-Peña, an emergency room physician and director of Global Health at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York. "My wife and I decided this year’s going to be nuclear family, and we’re not inviting anybody over."
As the holidays approach and the number of coronavirus cases surge, millions of Americans will face the decision of whether to eschew traditional gatherings with family and friends or risk spreading the virus among loved ones.
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s foremost authority on infectious diseases, and Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned about the potential for a spike in infections stemming from holiday parties, even if they’re small and only among relatives.
Memorial Day get-togethers were partly blamed for an increase in COVID-19 cases the USA experienced early in the summer. Events such as a Sweet 16 party late last month in Long Island, New York – linked to 37 positive tests – and a wedding in August in Maine – which led to more than 175 infections – underscore the danger of relatively small social functions turning into superspreaders.
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Last week, health officials in the Washington area said small gatherings have been a factor in the region hitting a two-month high in coronavirus cases.
"All along, there have been issues about attending weddings, funerals, religious gatherings and other events that are part of our normal life," said Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. "They bring people together and potentially become vectors for the virus. As many public health experts mention, the virus is attending these events and can be transmitted from person to person."
The traditional gatherings of relatives and friends during Thanksgiving and other holidays are a source of concern for public health experts, who fear they may lead to a spike in coronavirus cases.
Don't let the virus get to Grandma
The CDC, which discourages traditional trick-or-treating this Halloween, updated its guidance Monday about holiday celebrations as people across the U.S. get ready to observe Thanksgiving and after that Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa.
The tips for in-person gatherings include commonly known mitigation measures such as holding events outdoors, limiting their size, having participants wear masks and maintaining social distance. The CDC encourages hosts to request that guests avoid contact with people from outside their household for two weeks before the activity, which becomes even more important now that the agency has redefined what is "close contact'' with someone who has COVID.
Safe inside:Fauci warns against Thanksgiving celebrations: How to stay safe indoors from the coronavirus during cold seasons?
The impracticality of some of the safety measures – it’s hard to fit everybody at a table 6 feet apart or to eat a meal outdoors in the late November chill – combined with pandemic fatigue and some Americans' defiant nature will probably lead many to ignore the suggestions.
“I know there will be plenty of families who mock this kind of advice and say, ’That’s ridiculous. We’re going to get together and enjoy Thanksgiving like it’s supposed to be, and no one’s going to tell us otherwise,’” Woolf said. "That may give them a sense of independence, but then the virus gets to Grandma, and she ends up in the hospital on a ventilator, and then you live with the guilt.”
Woolf and other experts recommend that families in separate households sit at their Thanksgiving tables at the same time and connect through a video platform such as Zoom, which might give a sense of sharing the meal. If members of different households congregate inside, opening windows would at least improve ventilation and could help diffuse the virus, reducing the chances of contagion.
For Cioe-Peña who works in public health and sees the impact of COVID-19 on a regular basis, the decision to find alternate ways to celebrate the holidays, though painful, was pretty clear-cut.
"I want to see my parents this Thanksgiving. I’d love to spend time with extended family. This year it’s not in the cards," said Cioe-Peña, who, along with his wife, plans a Halloween candy scavenger hunt in the backyard for their two young children, rather than have them go out trick-or-treating with friends.
Others with less direct exposure to the virus’s ravages might be more tempted to take a chance, especially those who have avoided traveling to see relatives as the pandemic stretched over months.
Weighing risks versus the pain of isolation
Craig Smith, an associate professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University, said isolation over long stretches of sheltering in place can lead to a profound sense of loneliness and disconnection, particularly for those who have young children and are trying to balance parenting with work. Missing out on family gatherings would aggravate those feelings.