The winter holidays are upon us, but this year, the pandemic has made family gatherings more difficult and potentially unsafe. How can we celebrate without increasing our or other people’s risk of COVID-19?

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All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

In the words of Andy Williams, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” However, this holiday season, some of the magic has been compromised by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While countries around the world are slowly rolling out COVID-19 vaccination programs, the majority of the population will not have had the opportunity to get inoculated by the end of the year.

And since coming into close contact with other people is the main way in which SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — spreads, traditional gatherings with family and friends are unsafe this holiday season.

Stay informed with live updates on the current COVID-19 outbreak and visit our coronavirus hub for more advice on prevention and treatment.

In this Special Feature, we explain how you can safely celebrate during this holiday season.

This may be a year unlike all others, but there is no reason why we cannot enjoy the holidays while looking after our own and our loved ones’ health and well-being.

Article highlights:

According to recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

“The safest way to celebrate winter holidays is at home with the people who live with you.”

Research has suggested that almost half of those who contract the new coronavirus do not experience any telltale symptoms. That being the case, they may unwittingly spread it further.

If a person is unaware that they have a SARS-CoV-2 infection because they remain symptom-free, they may choose to meet up with family members over the winter holidays. In doing so, they could contribute to the risk of others contracting the virus, including those who may already be more vulnerable, such as older relatives or loved ones with existing chronic conditions, including diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

That is why the main piece of advice this season continues to be to avoid social gatherings and only celebrate with people from one’s own household.

However, according to some recent statistical data, approximately 36.2 million people in the United States were living on their own in 2020, and isolation can take a significant toll on mental health.

For those experiencing loneliness, further social isolation — especially during a season usually associated with family get-togethers — may seem like an unendurable option.

The CDC advise that people who may need to travel at this time should:

  • avoid seeing people who may already face a heightened risk of COVID-19
  • refrain from traveling to areas where the number of COVID-19 cases is on the rise
  • avoid traveling outside their town if cases in the region where they live have been on the rise, so as to stop the virus from spreading further
  • drive rather than using public transportation, where possible, to avoid close contact with other travelers
  • avoid traveling with people from other households to minimize the risk of exposure

The public health institute also remind people to wear a face mask when in public or in the close vicinity of people they do not live with, and to continue physical distancing — staying 6 feet apart — from those belonging to other households.

It is also important to keep washing the hands as often as possible. Previous research has suggested that if more than half of those who travel by air were to wash their hands often and correctly, the spread of viral infections could slow down by approximately 70%.

If there is limited or no access to soap and water, the CDC advise using hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol content.

Finally, it is important to get the seasonal flu vaccination to help prevent the additional risk that influenza viruses pose over the winter months.

If you are planning to attend a small gathering, the CDC recommend making sure that you and the host are on the same page when it comes to health and safety measures.

Furthermore, it may be best to use single-use plates and cutlery and individual condiment packets. People may also wish to consider bringing their own food instead of sharing food with other guests.

To prevent the spread of viral particles, wearing face masks — both indoors and outdoors — for as long as possible remains best practice, as well as washing or sanitizing the hands before and after having contact with high-touch surfaces or commonly used utensils.

The same precautions apply to those who may wish to host a small gathering, with the added advice to:

  • invite just a small number of guests, ideally only those who live locally
  • hold the celebration outdoors, if possible
  • ensure that any indoor celebrations take place in well-ventilated spaces
  • keep commonly touched surfaces clean

The CDC also advise people to avoid singing or shouting to limit the emission of particles into the air.

People who are or have recently been unwell should not host or attend any social gatherings. They can opt for other ways of celebrating instead, such as holding get-togethers over video chat.

Most importantly, however, the best way of showing love and care this holiday season may be by not pressuring loved ones into attending festivities in person. Equally, a person should not give in to pressure to celebrate in ways that make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

In an article for the Knowledge Centre at the University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom, Prof. Sarah Stewart-Brown, an expert in public health at Warwick Medical School, advises open and honest communication:

“Sometimes, balancing the needs of others with our own needs can be tricky, and it can take a while to work out what feels like the right thing to do. So the first piece of advice may be not to rush into decision making. Open discussion among family members about what they would like, and what feels safe and appropriate, will help.”

At the end of the day, loving care stands at the center of winter celebrations across cultures, so we should make our loved ones’ well-being the priority.

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) emerging diseases unit, has recently expressed one driving sentiment, with which she encourages us all to align:

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