While many people are vaccinated, COVID-19 still poses a risk to family gatherings. Emergency medicine physician Dr. Efrat Kean weighs in on how to minimize your level of risk.
We’ve come a long way since this time last year. The COVID-19 vaccine is available to people ages five and older, businesses have started to reopen and many of us have been able to reconnect with our loved ones. But, when thinking about hosting or attending gatherings this holiday season, how can we ensure everyone’s safety?
“It’s important for us to acknowledge that ‘safe’ is a relative term,” says emergency medicine physician Dr. Efrat Kean. “There is some level of risk any time you leave your home, so safety is really about calculating the level of risk you’re willing to take and minimizing it as much as possible.”
When considering the possibility of gathering with friends and family over the holidays, Dr. Kean suggests asking three questions:
- What is my personal risk of becoming severely ill with COVID-19?
- What is the level of risk of other people who will be in attendance?
- What strategies can I use to minimize risk as much as possible for myself and those around me?
Those most at risk for becoming severely ill or hospitalized with COVID-19 include people who are immunocompromised, over the age of 65, unvaccinated or any combination of the three. Once you’ve assessed the risks for you and your loved ones, consider what strategies will keep everyone as safe as possible.
Five Strategies to Minimize Risk
No one strategy will eliminate the risk that someone at your gathering will get COVID-19, so it’s important to think about each one as part of a holistic safety plan. “Think of your strategies like Swiss cheese. Each step you take is one slice. It has holes in it, it’s imperfect,” says Dr. Kean. “But as you layer the slices together, there are fewer and fewer holes until you have a whole block of cheese that’s intact.”
There are five key ways you can protect yourself and loved ones from COVID-19 as you gather for the holidays:
- Get vaccinated, including booster shots for those eligible
- Stick to well-ventilated areas, whether this means being outside, getting an air purifier with a HEPA filter or putting filters on your existing HVAC system
- Isolate and reduce exposure as much as possible in the two weeks prior to gathering
- Get tested before or upon arrival at a gathering, even if that means taking an at-home rapid antigen test
- Wear a mask as much as possible in the two weeks before the event, especially in indoor settings, and while at the gathering itself
The Importance of Getting Vaccinated
Being vaccinated is the easiest, safest and most important thing that anyone can do to protect themselves and other people from COVID-19. “While vaccination isn’t a magic bullet, it is the most powerful tool we have,” says Dr. Kean.
Vaccines have been proven to reduce the risks of contracting COVID-19; severe illness, hospitalization or death from the virus; and transmission to other people. Dr. Kean recommends that everyone who can be vaccinated should be vaccinated before gathering.
You are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after your second shot of a two-shot vaccine or first shot of a one-shot vaccine. Children between ages 5 and 11 won’t have enough time before Thanksgiving to be fully vaccinated, but they can be fully vaccinated by Christmas.
In addition, anyone who is eligible for a booster shot should get one as soon as possible. “If you’re older than 65, a booster will lower your risk of a severe breakthrough infection,” says Dr. Kean. “But even if you’re younger, studies have shown that boosters significantly reduce transmission—meaning you’re less likely to pass on the virus.”
Communicating with Family
Addressing COVID-19 risks and mitigation strategies before a family gathering can require some hard conversations, especially if it involves excluding certain family members. If you have unvaccinated people at your gathering, they will present a higher risk of transmitting the virus to everyone there—not to mention they take on a bigger risk themselves if they contract the virus. “This doesn’t mean you need to uninvite those people—there could be multiple reasons why they’re unvaccinated, including being under the age of 5 or having an allergy to the vaccine—but you do need to plan other ways to reduce risks,” says Dr. Kean.
When planning or attending a gathering with loved ones, ask yourself what you’re most comfortable with and communicate your boundaries clearly and honestly. “Now is the right time to start talking with your friends and family about safety plans,” says Dr. Kean. “We can only hope that our loved ones will be understanding and respect the boundaries we set for ourselves.”