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Guide to Family Holiday Conversations During COVID-19

Family in a home decorated for Christmas have a video call

After ten exhausting months of the COVID-19 pandemic in Charlotte, the winter holidays have arrived just as infections are rising, and North Carolina is doing its best to control the spread. 

While the idea of modifying favorite holiday traditions seems like the worst way to cap off an already difficult year, the reality is making changes to how we celebrate is a necessary step  in keeping COVID-19 in check in the Charlotte region. And to keep you and your loved ones safe. 

Having conversations with those you’d typically celebrate the holidays with is an important part of developing safe plans, but these conversations can be difficult. To help, we’ve consulted two physicians at Tryon Medical Partners who often share advice on these topics with their patients. So keep reading, then plan that Zoom call you’ve been putting off to finalize your safe holiday plans.

Have the Conversation…Now

While it can be easy to procrastinate, the key to a safe and enjoyable holiday celebration is talking about it early and honestly. 

“It’s more stressful not to have the conversation to begin with,” said Dr. Elaine Campbell, an internal medicine specialist at Tryon Huntersville. “It really does help if you have it early on so everyone is on the same page, and we reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 to loved ones.”

In order for holiday celebrations to be the spirited and joyous occasions we mean for them to be, putting aside any logistical issues before the day arrives helps keep them that way.

“Planning ahead allows for the holidays to ultimately be a time of safe enjoyment,” said Dr. Kym Furney who specializes in internal medicine at Tryon Pineville. “If discussions are left to the last minute, people may end up feeling frustrated and angry if caught by surprise with a change in the usual traditions.”

If you’re struggling to find the right way to begin the conversation, Dr. Furney says you are welcome to blame it on your doctor. 

“Especially because of the rise in COVID-19 cases, we are advising to keep gatherings small, ideally with the family in your own home,” Furney said. “Using these physician recommendations as an opening to talk about your own plans may be a helpful way to start.”

Furney stresses that even if you disagree with one another on the details, try to keep your focus on the reason for making the changes that hopefully everyone can agree on. It’s all about keeping the ones you love safe and healthy.

Ask the Right Questions

It’s important to understand that everyone has differing levels of comfort during the pandemic. When talking with a loved one about holiday plans, one of the most important questions you can ask is how they’re feeling about getting together. 

Dr. Furney has had many conversations with patients who are struggling to decide whether or not to spend the holidays with those outside their household. Talking intergenerationally is important, with some caught in the middle of caring for older parents and younger children. Older patients and those with risk factors often express to Dr. Furney that they don’t want to disappoint their families by not seeing them, but are extremely worried about the consequences of becoming ill. Simply asking a loved one about their own comfort level can open up these discussions.

The recommendation is to celebrate within your own household, adding in those outside your nuclear family via phone, Facetime or Zoom. But, if you decide to see folks outside your bubble, be sure to ask additional questions to assess your risk and make the best choices, Dr. Campbell says. Be sure to ask how many people will be getting together and who will be part of the group. From there, work to understand what precautions others have been taking, and if they align with your comfort level. 

What about students arriving home from college? Dr. Furney finds herself fielding this question often. She advises parents to be aware of their children’s exposure levels, and to understand that even if they are quarantining at school, students may still be around others, like roommates. Based on all you know, make a plan, perhaps having students quarantine in another part of the home when they arrive, or in the most extreme situations, having them join the festivities via phone.

Set Expectations Ahead of Time

If prior to your gathering, someone isn’t feeling well, set the expectation that they’ll agree to be upfront about that and stay home, Dr. Campbell says. Be sure all attendees are on the same page about celebrating outdoors, staying physically distant, especially while eating, and that there will be frequent hand sanitizing. This assures things go as planned, keeping everyone as safe and healthy as possible.

Have clear conversations about expectations for mask wearing. Know, for example, that everyone will be wearing masks except while eating, during which tables will be spaced apart with no buffet-style dining to cut down on touched surfaces.

Know Your Testing and/or Quarantine Plan

In advance of Thanksgiving, Tryon’s satellite COVID-19 testing sites were busy with those who hoped a clear test would indicate they could celebrate the holiday freely. Dr. Campbell stresses that COVID-19 tests only reflect one moment in time. The actions you take after your test, prior to getting your results back, can still expose you to the virus. Additionally, if someone is tested too early after an exposure, the test could return negative even though the patient is asymptomatically ill and spreading the virus to others. The majority of COVID-19 infections are caused by those who are asymptomatic or presymptomatic, meaning they have no symptoms and feel perfectly healthy despite being contagious. So, while testing can be helpful, Dr. Campbell emphasizes mask wearing and the CDC’s quarantine guidelines of seven to 10 days of diligent time to be sure that once you see family or friends, you won’t asymptotically spread the virus. 

Dr. Furney adds that, due to the influx of COVID-19 cases, testing may be limited for those who are asymptomatic, in order to increase the availability of tests for sick patients.

Get Creative With Your Celebration

There are a variety of ways to be creative this holiday season — and even develop new traditions. With milder weather in the Charlotte region, there are plenty of days we can enjoy outdoor activities, Dr. Campbell says. The illuminated walking trails at U.S. National Whitewater Center feature light displays installed by a local artist. There is also a drive-through holiday light display at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

With so much of the holidays being about food, Dr. Campbell also suggests sharing food by doing a drop-off or pick-up option with family so that when you get together via video call, you can enjoy a variety of treats, and your loved ones’ favorite recipes, at the same time. 

Yes, it can all feel overwhelming. But you should never feel alone. Don’t hesitate to consult your trusted doctor for more information about COVID-19, or visit Tryon’s COVID-19 resources to learn more about testing and what we know about the vaccine.

Despite the holidays coming together differently this year, the important thing is that we keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy so we can enjoy future celebrations for years to come.