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COVID and the 2021 holidays: How to stay safe if you’re gathering to celebrate

Whether your family includes partially vaccinated kids or vulnerable older adults and young children, experts offer guidelines for making safer holiday plans.

The weather has turned cooler and many stores are decked out for the 2021 holiday season, but as we barrel towards this year’s Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s and more winter holiday festivities, many people have one major question in mind: Is it safe?

“COVID safety is a matter of everyone asking, not just what is best for their own personal safety, but looking around and treating others as you would want to be treated if you were in their situation,” says Dr. David Cutler, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

“COVID safety is a matter of everyone asking, not just what is best for their own personal safety, but looking around and treating others as you would want to be treated if you were in their situation.”

— DR. DAVID CUTLER, FAMILY MEDICINE PHYSICIAN

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) kept its holiday guidance short and sweet this year. It recommends:

  • Vaccines for all who are eligible.
  • Wearing a mask in public indoor settings.
  • Avoiding crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.
  • Not attending or hosting gatherings when ill.

While helpful, these guidelines don’t answer many of the tough questions families are asking, like how to handle gatherings with partially vaccinated kids, whether or not it’s safe to return to favorite traditions like visiting Santa or how to protect vulnerable older adults and young children. So, how can you navigate each person’s risk level and make the safest holiday plans for your family? Here’s what the experts have to say.

What’s the safest way to gather for the holidays?

This year, safety largely depends on vaccine status, says Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in Dallas, who authors a popular newsletter breaking down the latest COVID news. 

“If everyone at your gathering is fully vaccinated, I don’t really see a need for additional restrictions,” Jetelina says. “The more difficult thing is when you start mixing in partially vaccinated and unvaccinated or vulnerable people.”

“If everyone at your gathering is fully vaccinated, I don’t really see a need for additional restrictions. The more difficult thing is when you start mixing in partially vaccinated and unvaccinated or vulnerable people.”

— KATELYN JETELINA, EPIDEMIOLOGIST

So far, 72% of eligible adults have been vaccinated in the U.S. In late October, children ages 5-11 were approved for their first COVID vaccines, and some seniors and vulnerable adults have been getting booster shots since September. For parents like Katie Schill from Omaha, Nebraska, having vaccines available for her two kids has made all the difference. 

“The kids will be nearly at their second shot for Thanksgiving and fully vaccinated by Christmas, so we’re back to normal,” Schill says. “We’re having a Christmas party with fully vaccinated people. With cases going up, it’s nice to have that extra protection.”

At gatherings where vaccine status is mixed or can’t be determined, Jetelina suggests layering safety measures. This may include:

  • Wearing masks indoors, regardless of vaccine status.
  • Attending outdoor events when possible.
  • Limiting the number of people who come to celebrate.
  • Staying home if exposed to or showing symptoms of COVID.

Another major way to boost safety is to have everyone take a COVID test before gathering, Jetelina says. “Antigen tests are quick and pick up when someone is infectious,” she adds. “You could have everyone take a test the morning before the event, and you can put a lot of faith in those results.”

“Antigen tests are quick and pick up when someone is infectious. You could have everyone take a test the morning before the event, and you can put a lot of faith in those results.”

— KATELYN JETELINA

How do I protect unvaccinated or partially vaccinated kids?

Since kids ages 5-11 are just starting to get vaccinated, some will only be partially vaccinated through the holidays. Additionally, kids under 5 still aren’t eligible for vaccines. “How you proceed in this gray area with partial vaccination depends on risk tolerance,” Jetelina says. “The precautions you take should depend on who is around you and if you are located in a substantial transmission area.”

Shannon Brescher Shea, a Washington, D.C. parent of two partially vaccinated kids, plans to invite her parents and in-laws to Thanksgiving this year. Her parents are already a part of her COVID bubble, but she’ll be asking her in-laws to test pre-gathering for added safety. “Our overall level of concern about COVID is somewhat high, but it is definitely lower now that my kids at least have the first shot,” Shea says.

Jetelina says parents of partially vaccinated kids may want to follow guidance for unvaccinated kids until their kids have gotten both shots. The CDC recommends unvaccinated kids over 2 wear masks indoors. They also suggest family members get vaccinated and consider wearing masks in indoor public settings as well.

“We know from the adult clinical trials that adults who are partially vaccinated are somewhat protected, but we don’t have that data with kids yet,” Jetelina says. 

Is it safe for older and/or immunocompromised people to gather?

“Highly vulnerable individuals should not be in situations where they could contract COVID-19,” Cutler says.

Some seniors and those with underlying conditions may improve their chances of staying healthy this holiday season by taking a layered approach to safety. Cutler recommends these individuals:

Even with extra precautions, Cutler says it’s important to remember the delta variant is extremely contagious, and vaccines don’t offer 100% protection from infection or severe illness. In some cases, it may be necessary to consider a COVID-safe holiday celebration, like meeting on Zoom or planning a porch-only visit.

“Many COVID infections are asymptomatic, and asymptomatic carriers can spread the disease, despite being immunized,” Cutler says. “Therefore, any close interaction carries the risk of transmitting COVID. Immunocompromised individuals and their families need to consider this before gathering for the holidays.”

Is it safe to travel?

Vaccines are required for international travel. To stay safe while traveling domestically, the CDC recommends:

  • Testing 1-3 days before your trip and 3-5 days after traveling.
  • Wearing a mask on public transportation.
  • Avoiding crowds.
  • Using hand sanitizer.
  • Canceling travel if you are exposed to COVID or have symptoms.

If you’re traveling with unvaccinated or high-risk family members, car travel may be a safer option. Ideally, the CDC says, travel by car only with your immediate family and limit exposure to those who aren’t a part of your household. 

Plane travel isn’t off-limits to anyone, but Jetelina recommends staying vigilant in the airport. “The actual plane is very safe because airlines have been doing an amazing job at enforcing masks,” Jetelina says. “Where I get uncomfortable, especially for partially vaccinated or vulnerable people, is getting to and from the plane. So, in crowded terminals, baggage areas and areas where people are taking off their masks and eating, that’s where I would be most vigilant.” 

What about holiday traditions like attending religious services, volunteering or visiting Santa?

If you’re going out in public, the CDC recommends masking indoors. This applies even to fully vaccinated people in communities with high rates of COVID transmission. Churches, temples, malls and other places may also have their own COVID guidelines in place. Generally, the CDC says outdoor spaces are thought to be safer than indoor spaces.

Last year, many locations to visit Santa Claus implemented COVID safety measures, like plexiglass barriers and social distancing. Whether those same measures are in place this year will vary by location. If kids are too young to be vaccinated or haven’t yet completed their full vaccine series, Jetelina advises caution when considering anything that requires close contact.

“As a parent, my first question would be, is Santa vaccinated? I hope communities, malls or whoever’s putting on the event makes that clear,” Jetelina says. “If vaccination status is unknown, I would be cautious of my unvaccinated kids sitting on his lap. It’s best if they stand a foot or two away and you grab a picture.”

Is there anything else I can do to make holiday gatherings safer?

Both Cutler and Jetelina agree the key to COVID safety is using multiple protection measures and looking out for the needs of those most at risk. To quickly assess the potential risk level of an event, Jetelina says to consider the following:

  • How many people will attend the event?
  • How many attendees are unvaccinated?
  • Does your county have a high rate of virus transmission?

Tools like the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Vaccine Monitor and Georgia Tech University’s COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Tool can help you gauge the level of risk in your area.

Most importantly, Jetelina says, if you want to make the holidays safer, encourage unvaccinated loved ones to get their COVID shots. “Many unvaccinated adults change their minds because of family and friends, so open that line of communication,” Jetelina says. “Once you find the reason for hesitancy, point them to evidence-based resources. Sometimes it won’t work, but I think everyone should certainly try.”