April may have felt like it lasted forever but now that fall is upon us, the holiday season is right around the corner. While this is usually an exciting time (Pumpkin everything! Turkey and football! Christmas lights!), this year brings a whole host of new questions as we celebrate alongside the COVID-19 pandemic. Will it be safe to gather with friends and family? Can I plan to travel like usual?
Although there is no one “right” answer, Tryon Medical Partners internal medicine physicians Dr. Althea Cunningham and Dr. Reshma Vora help shed some light by sharing their recommendations for this holiday season.
Socialization Is Needed
We are far enough along in this pandemic to recognize the importance of social connections for our mental health. And seeing as this public health crisis has added new stressors, having these social outlets can help us from feeling isolated. We must take care of our emotional health and rely on our support systems. Reach out to friends and family on Facetime, Zoom or with a good old fashioned phone call. And if you haven’t already, think about creating your social bubble of a select few who are on the same page about limiting exposure to others during the pandemic.
Know Your Comfort Level
People should not hesitate to make it known if they want to wear a mask or prefer visiting friends or family members to do the same.
“It doesn’t have to be confrontational,” Dr. Cunningham said. “Just lay out expectations from the start.”
Everyone has different levels of risk tolerance.
“People need to feel confident in their decisions about what is best for their family,” Dr. Vora said. “If you don’t feel comfortable with something, use your best judgement. It’s ok to say no or suggest celebrating together, virtually.”
In efforts to reduce exposure to germs, it is safest to think about staying home this holiday season, or close to home, especially if you or any family members have underlying health conditions.
“Spending the holidays with those you’ve already been seeing throughout the pandemic, who may be part of your ‘bubble,’ is the safest bet,“ Dr. Vora said. “If you must travel, choose to drive instead of fly. If you need to stop at a restroom when on the road, be sure to wear your mask and get in and out as soon as possible, and then use hand sanitizer.”
When stopping for gasoline, wipe down anything that you touch and use hand sanitizer after you are finished, Dr. Cunningham says. It’s best to pack your own food for the trip or go through a drive-thru to avoid going into restaurants.
If you find that you have to fly, try to get a direct flight, wear your mask at all times and wipe down anything on the plane that you touch, like the seat, belt buckle and tray table. And don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
Every state has its own requirements for travelers so it’s best to stay up-to-date on the CDC website. You want to avoid any places that are having a surge in cases and think about limiting the number of guests who may be coming to visit from those areas. While the CDC doesn’t recommend testing asymptomatic people, it may make sense to get tested before visiting with anyone who is high risk.
Outside Is Best
With coronavirus easily transmitted through the air, it is safer to socialize outside instead of enclosed spaces. In our temperate climate, we have opportunities throughout the fall and winter to meet with friends and family outside, keeping the appropriate social distance.
For those with an outdoor dining space, this is a perfect choice for holding holiday dinners with guests. Remember that it’s still best to space yourself out around the table since you won’t be able to wear masks. Avoid passing around dishes or having a buffet, instead designating one person to plate and serve the food to limit the number of people touching a serving spoon. For commonly shared items like salt and pepper or a butter knife, sanitize your hands after touching.
If it’s just too cold to be outdoors and you need to bring it inside, plan to wear masks and have hand sanitizer readily available. When taking off your mask to eat, be sure to spread out so you are at least six feet apart.
Halloween is probably going to look very different this year. Dr. Cunningham recommends trying to remain at least six feet from others and plan to have a mask ready if you think that’s going to be unrealistic. Avoid touching doorbells. Since it will be hard to socially distance if handing out candy, think about leaving it outside in a few different bowls that are spread apart, along with, you guessed it, hand sanitizer.
Get Your Flu Shot
October doesn’t just bring Halloween, it also marks the start of flu season. With it possible to contract both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time, it’s more important than ever to get a flu shot this year.
“We hope that the precautions we are taking to prevent the spread of coronavirus, like wearing masks, socially distancing and washing hands, will also result in lower rates of the flu,” Dr. Cunningham said.
Is It a Cold or Is It COVID?
As winter also brings cough and cold season, how can you tell if you have a common cold or COVID-19?
“Unfortunately, so many of the symptoms overlap and the only way to know definitively is to be tested,” Dr. Vora said.
It’s recommended that you contact your primary care provider if you are not feeling well and have any upper respiratory symptoms. Virtual visits are available and satellite testing locations will test for both the flu (rapid results) and COVID-19 (results within 2-3 days), as symptoms indicate. For the most accurate COVID test results, testing is recommended after having symptoms for 48 hours.
Ways to Stay Healthy
To help keep your immune system strong, eat a healthy, balanced diet, exercise, get plenty of sleep, take care of your mental health and wellness, manage any chronic conditions and keep up with routine, preventative care. Even though we’re a few months away, our current behavior may have a direct impact on what the holiday season looks like.
“Now is not the time to get complacent,” Dr. Cunningham said. “We need to keep doing what has been shown to be effective in limiting the spread of coronavirus–wear a mask, socially distance and wash your hands.”
Drs. Vora and Cunningham both agree that it is important to keep perspective. While this year has been mentally and emotionally draining, there is a light at the end of the tunnel–we will not be in a pandemic forever. Stay positive, stay engaged with friends and family and stay healthy by doing all you can right now to protect yourself, and in doing so, others as well.