The holiday season is upon us and, now more than ever, many of us are wishing we could spend a little time with our loved ones.
But with the COVID-19 pandemic still present and infection rates increasing, how safe is it to gather with friends or family for a holiday get-together?
“The challenge is that everything we do that brings us in contact with people we don’t otherwise see, particularly indoors and particularly without masks, increases the chances of someone who has the virus giving it to someone who doesn’t,” says Dr. Jared Baeten, an infectious disease specialist at Harborview Medical Center.
In other words, to keep each other safe, our holiday plans need to look a little different this year. Here’s how to adapt yours to help prevent spreading the virus.
What is a superspreader event?
It’s likely you’ve heard the term “superspreader” thrown around in the news to describe everything from weddings to bus rides to funerals.
“A superspreading event isn’t really about a single person, it’s about setting up the context for a spreading to occur,” Baeten explains.
This is because if you are highly infectious (which can occur whether or not you have symptoms) but you stay home, then you’re not spreading the virus to anyone else. However, if you instead attend a get-together with some friends, then that hangout could become a hotbed for infection.
“A superspreader event occurs when someone who is at a moment when they’re quite infectious enters into a group of people who are able to receive the virus,” Baeten says.
From there, the people who are infected can go on to infect others, who infect others, until — well, you get the idea.
How can you prevent your holidays from becoming a superspreader event?
We’ll tell it to you straight: Thanksgiving and other holidays, which are often spent inside while talking and eating, are a near perfect set up for superspreading.
“No public health person wants to be a killjoy on this, but it’s perfectly clear that if you bring people together who aren’t usually together, that’s how transmission happens,” Baeten says.
While the science is clear that it is not recommended to bring people together from different households, there are some cases where this can’t be avoided. If a college student has to come home over break or you are determined to have a small gathering, here are some ways to mitigate the risks and prevent spread.
Before the event
The single biggest thing you can do to keep your loved ones safe actually occurs before you see them.
“You can reduce risk by effectively quarantining yourself before you come into contact with other people,” Baeten says.
While it can be difficult to quarantine from your roommate if you’re in a small apartment, do your best to maintain distance and use a separate bathroom and sleeping space if available. During that time, monitor yourself to make sure you don’t have any symptoms.
It’s also smart to get tested before traveling, Baeten says.
For transportation to the event or gathering, Baeten notes that driving solo or with people you’ve been isolating with is safest. If you do need to fly, keep your mask on (and goggles, if so desired) and try to maintain distance from others as much as possible in the airport.
During the event
While winter in the Pacific Northwest isn’t exactly the most accommodating, it’s worth noting that outdoor events are much safer than indoor ones because there is better airflow outside.
“The biggest risk is sitting around a table and laughing and breathing in the same place,” Baeten notes.
If you can, opt to meet outdoors, where you can maintain distance. Indoors, try to wear masks as much as possible, open windows to increase ventilation and keep at least six feet of distance between yourself and others when you are eating or otherwise not wearing a mask.
You can also have each guest bring their own food so that you are not sharing dishes, though Baeten notes this is less important than distance and airflow.
And no matter what you do, be sure to wash your hands often.
What can you do to cope with holiday blues or loneliness?
The holidays can be hard enough already without COVID-19 being added into the mix.
So, it’s normal and OK if you are feeling disappointed or lonely this holiday season.
To help yourself cope, try to take advantage of technology to connect with loved ones that you can’t see in person, spend quality time with those who you currently in your bubble and set aside time to care for yourself.
Ultimately, we will all need to adapt to help keep one another healthy — both mentally and physically.
“See friends and family in ways that are most safe,” Baeten, says. “Don’t give up on the holidays but do them in way to stay safe.”
Editor's Note 11/23: With cases of COVID-19 on the rise, we recommend avoiding non-essential travel and indoor gatherings with people you do not live with.
Editor's Note: This article was updated to reflect Gov. Inslee’s updated winter restrictions, announced Nov. 15. The info in this article is accurate as of the publishing date. While Right as Rain strives to keep our stories as current as possible, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve. It’s possible some things have changed since publication. We encourage you to stay informed by checking out your local health department resources, like Public Health Seattle King County or Washington State Department of Health.