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Staying Safe from COVID-19 While Enjoying the Holidays

Nearly three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, most people are behaving as if the threat from the virus is over. Yet there are still over 300 people in the U.S. who are dying from COVID-19 every day.

But our primary care doctors in Delray Beach understand the desire to return to pre-pandemic life as much as possible. That includes celebrating the holidays the way we did in 2019.

Loosening Up—a Bit

In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new, more relaxed guidelines that reflect this new mindset among Americans.

“This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives,” Greta Massetti, a CDC epidemiologist, said in a statement.

“This is the holiday that everyone’s going to come back together again,” Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times.

With some advance planning, he added, such gatherings can be safe.

“We have the tools for a normal life,” he said. “We just have to use them.”

So here are some ways you can get together with friends this season while at the same time reducing your risk of becoming infected.

Protect the Vulnerable

If you plan the festivities around the highest-risk member of your family, not only will they be safe, but so will everyone else there.

This category includes those over age 60 or under age five and anyone with a compromised immune system, including:

  • cancer survivors
  • those on immunosuppressant medications
  • anyone who has received an organ transplant

The easiest way to make sure the environment is safe is to hold your gathering outside. This allows the infected aerosolized droplets to dissipate into the air. It’s also a good idea to ask anyone who needs to go indoors (to prepare food or use the bathroom, for example) to wear a mask while in the house.

It’s also a good idea to ask how many of the attendees have been vaccinated or infected, and how recently. The CDC recommends that those in either group receive a booster at least two months after their last booster or vaccine.

Offer Testing

For those who are vaccine holdouts, or who have not had a recent infection or received a booster lately, it’s not unreasonable to ask that they take a rapid COVID-19 test as they arrive. In fact, for the ultimate in safety, it’s best if everyone who attends takes a test.

This is because, as we know, as many as 30 percent of those infected will never have symptoms. In addition, it can take as long as five days after exposure to see symptoms in those who are infected (although with the omicron variant, symptom onset is closer to 48 hours).

“If you are going to an event, the only test that matters is the test you take right before,” Michael Mina, chief science officer for the biotech software company eMed told NBC News.

“Even if you have taken three negative tests within 48 hours, if you have been exposed, you should test right before you see people or go to an event to avoid transmission.”

And if everyone does it, this won’t single out specific people and possibly make them uncomfortable.

“You can just have a little testing party outside, where everyone says, ‘OK, now we’re good, we’re negative, we can go in and see Mom,’ ” Stuart Ray, an infectious diseases specialist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told the Times.

Watch for Symptoms

Some experts are saying the number of asymptomatic infections is likely even higher with the omicron variant—that is, closer to 60 percent or higher.

Helen Chu, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Washington School of Medicine, told ABC News MedPage Today that the more exposure an individual has, either from vaccination or prior infection, the broader their immunity and the better they are to control the virus.

In that case, an individual is more likely to be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms that are difficult to detect. Still, such individuals are able to infect others.

“Spaces that are not well ventilated, have large numbers of individuals, and places where people are speaking loudly or eating, those are the spaces that we should be most concerned about,” she said.

So if you or any of your guests exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, you should stay home. The most common symptoms include:

  • sore throat
  • congestion
  • coughing
  • excessive fatigue
  • headaches
  • muscle pain
  • loss of taste or smell

Ventilate, Ventilate, Ventilate

Finally, if you can’t hold your event outside, then take steps to increase air circulation indoors. Remember that the COVID-19 virus stays suspended in aerosols for hours after an infected person exhales, lingering in the air like cigarette smoke.

So open doors and windows as much as possible, leave on any exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathrooms and use portable air purifiers with HEPA filters.

We’re definitely in a better place than we were for the last two holiday seasons, even though the pandemic isn’t totally behind us. So hopefully these few precautions can help us protect each other and still enjoy holiday gatherings with friends.

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