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Keep COVID off your holiday guest list

Sunita Sohrabji

The holiday season is just around the corner. And, as we comb through our collections of treasured holiday ornaments, put Santa and his reindeer on the lawn, and plan elaborate feasts, health experts advise us to devise a strategy to keep our beloved friends and family safe from COVID-19 infection. This is especially important to protect elderly family members.

Dr. Dali Fan, a cardiologist and health sciences clinical professor at University of California Davis, says he expects there will be an increase of COVID-19 cases this winter.

“I would not call it a ‘surge,’ which carries a tone of an uncontrolled situation. But a winter case increase is likely, and we need to stay vigilant,” said Fan.

Boosters provide protection

About 80 percent of Americans have received their initial COVID-19 vaccine series, but just 10 percent have availed of the updated booster, which is believed to recognize and provide protection against the Omicron variant.

In mid-October, the BA.5 subvariant accounted for 70 percent of COVID-19 cases in the US. But rapidly emerging are the BA.4 and BA.4.6 subvariants, which account for 13 percent of infections. BQ.1 and BQ1.1, both immune-evasive variants, are rising rapidly and account for about 11 percent of cases in the US., said the CDC in a Nov. 4 report.

“It’s unclear whether any of them will overtake BA.5 as the country’s dominant COVID strain,” Fan said. “That makes getting a new Omicron-specific COVID booster all the more crucial.”

Fan provides advice on keeping our families safe from a COVID-19 infection, as we celebrate the holidays.

The holidays usually mean large indoor parties, often with poor ventilation because of inclement weather. Are such gatherings super-spreader events?
Fan: The short answer is yes. Hosting a holiday party indoors is considered risky for those who invite family and friends living outside of their homes. Risks associated with parties and events are driven in large part by the highly infectious Omicron strain of COVID-19.

A Harris Poll conducted last year found that 54 percent of fully vaccinated respondents intend to make vaccination status a factor when they’re making their holiday plans. More than 50 percent are hesitant to attend gatherings with unvaccinated family members or friends. So, if you are concerned, you are not alone.

How can hosts keep their guests safe from getting a Covid infection during their indoor gathering? Conversely, what can guests do?
First, urge everyone on your holiday guest list to get vaccinated, and to get a new updated booster or third dose if advised to by their health professional. This will be the biggest COVID-19 risk factor reduction.

Second, if you’re able to, host family outside, where risks are considerably lower.

Third, protect yourself while attending indoor gatherings. Wear a well-fitted mask, keep a safe distance from others, and wash your hands frequently.

Lastly, if you are sick, stay home.

Would you recommend wearing a mask at an indoor holiday party, even if folks around you choose not to wear them? And should we limit the size of gatherings?
Wearing a mask in indoor spaces helps slow the spread of many different respiratory viruses including RSV, flu and COVID.

I personally recommend that if you’re going to get together with people who are not living in your home and local transmission rates are high, do wear masks, if possible. This can be awkward and embarrassing. But it lowers your risk, your host’s risk, as well as your loved ones.

If the meal can be enjoyed outdoors with a limited number of people, that’s safer than gathering inside. If the celebration must take place indoors, opening windows can increase ventilation.

Who Should Wear Masks?
Other people who should consider wearing masks include:

Younger children who may not be able to receive full vaccinations 

Elderly guests who may be considered immuno-compromised but unable to complete vaccination and those who face pre-existing conditions that put them at high risk for severe sickness

Those living in a town or city where local COVID-19 transmission is trending high, as asymptomatic spread (those who are sick without any symptoms) is still a concern.

Would you recommend that hosts mandate a COVID test of each of their guests on the day of the gathering?
I don’t think a COVID test mandate is necessary, but those that feel safer testing before traveling or attending in person events should feel free to do so.

How do we keep elderly family members and high-risk people safe? If a resident of a long-term care facility joins in, what safety measures would you suggest for them, and your guests?
Remember: Compared to young adults, those over the age of 65 are 60 times more likely to die from COVID-19, according to the CDC. The death rate is 340 times higher for those over the age of 85. This underscores the need to get vaccinated and boosted and to take any additional precautions based on your situation, like masking or celebrating outside or virtually if necessary.

People from long-term care facilities usually have the highest risk. Inform your guests about their presence.

Will boosters play a big role in keeping people safe during the holidays?
I believe the COVID vaccine booster doses are crucial. Please keep in mind that while the original mRNA coronavirus vaccines have proven effective at preventing death and severe disease from COVID-19, breakthrough infections and reinfections have become more common in the face of an evolving virus and waning immune protection over time. The boosters can strength the protection on both fronts.

The updated booster is a bivalent vaccine, which means it contains two messenger RNA (mRNA) components of the coronavirus. Half of the vaccine targets the original strain, and the other half targets the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariant lineages, which are predicted to continue circulating this fall and winter.

When is the ideal time to take the shot, for protection through Thanksgiving and beyond?
It’s going to take about two weeks for you to start to develop protection from the initial COVID vaccine. It typically takes a few weeks for the body to produce T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes after vaccination. But the protection starts to wane after about six months.

So, the best time to get boosted for the holidays is now.