The safety outlook for family celebrations like Thanksgiving and Christmas this year is pretty different than last year. That’s due to the availability of multiple vaccines proven safe and effective at reducing the risk of getting COVID-19.
In 2020, public health officials recommended keeping holiday-season celebrations limited to immediate family. This year, the Centers for Disease Control acknowledged that “holiday traditions are important for families and children” and offered a series of tips on making celebrations like Thanksgiving safer.
Top Thanksgiving tip: Get vaccinated
The top recommendation from federal and local health officials is to get one of the COVID-19 vaccines now approved for adults and children as young as 5 years old, said Whitney Mann, head of outreach for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department.
“The best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 this holiday season, and especially Thanksgiving as people are gathering, is to get vaccinated,” Mann said. “We are advising if you’re not fully vaccinated, wear a well-fitting mask over the nose and mouth.”
Check your Thanksgiving risk level for COVID
A major factor this year is that the CDC rates each county in Missouri — and around the country — on its level of community coronavirus transmission, as a guide for best safety practices when families gather for holidays.
Almost 70 percent of U.S. counties were rated “high” for transmission in mid-November; another 17 percent were rated the next step down, “substantial.”
Greene County was rated substantial, and to date, the bordering southwest Missouri counties were also rated substantial, with two exceptions: Christian County (high) and Dade County (moderate). Substantial ratings also covered the Branson and Lebanon areas.
The CDC isn’t the only outfit making risk predictions. As the News-Leader reported earlier, scientists at Georgia Institute of Technology developed a COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool last year.
The map-based tool allows you to learn the percentage chance that at least one individual infected with COVID-19 would be present at an event, based on community virus levels and the number of people gathering.
In late November 2020, the tool showed Greene County gatherings of 10 people had a 27-percent chance that at least one person was COVID-positive.
Two weeks before Thanksgiving in 2021, the risk level for a 10-person gathering was 5 percent. (Most of Missouri was somewhere between a 1-percent and a 25-percent chance).
With more people comes more risk: A 20-person event carried a 10-percent chance that one of the attendees would test positive for COVID-19, according to the tool.
Tools like the Georgia event risk map can help people decide whether they’re comfortable traveling, while the CDC’s community ratings are intended to guide whether masking is needed at Thanksgiving or other festivities.
“You know, the CDC does continue to identify this area as an area of substantial or high transmission,” said Mann with the local health department, “and so they do recommend in close quarters indoors that fully vaccinated people also wear a mask.”
When the CDC says “wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission,” that includes family holidays, Mann said, even though they might not seem like “public events” in our minds. “Especially if you’re thinking about having people from multiple communities or multiple households.”
Meanwhile, the CDC advises families to consider masking up regardless of community transmission levels if someone in your family has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease or is unvaccinated.
Health department: Watch for COVID symptoms, consider testing
More households are likely to join up for holidays compared to last year. According to AAA, more than 53 million Americans plan to travel for Thanksgiving, almost back to pre-pandemic levels.
With that reality in the background, the CDC also offered a few other tips, including these:
- Outdoors activities are safer than indoors.
- Avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.
- If you are sick or have symptoms, don’t host or attend a gathering.
- Get tested if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have a close contact with someone who has COVID-19.
- Do not place a mask on a child younger than age 2 for safety reasons.
Staying home if you show symptoms of illness is important, Mann said. “Yes, COVID does have symptoms that mimic allergies, but especially for a group of people together, if it ends up not being allergies, you’ve just potentially exposed your entire family.”
Even though it’s relatively rare for children to be hospitalized with COVID-19, unvaccinated teens infected by COVID-19 this year ended up in the hospital 10 times more often than vaccinated ones, according to the CDC. As far as kids go, “it’s really important to just consider them the same as you,” Mann said. “They’re equally capable of transmitting the virus.”
She added, “If you’re family’s coming in, everyone going out and getting a COVID test before they come in, it just adds that added layer of protection.”
Testing after Thanksgiving travel isn’t a bad idea either, Mann said. “Just be mindful of all the mitigation practices, not only on Thanksgiving — yes, that’s important, but leading up to it as well.”
The Springfield-Greene County Health Department has advice about Thanksgiving and holiday shopping safety posted online at health.springfieldmo.gov/celebrate.
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