The United States still finds itself at a precarious point now that the winter holidays are fast approaching. Controlling the spread of COVID remains challenging, and transmission rates are high in many states. Now that outdoor activities are being limited by the winter weather, the rate of transmission is still expected to go higher.
The pandemic is not going away any time soon, so we also need to figure out how to have enjoyable–and safe!–experiences with friends and family. In this era of the new normal, nothing carries zero risk of spreading or contracting the virus. However, we can make smart choices that minimize these risks.
Here are a few core principles that you should consider and follow as you plan for the holidays and gatherings this December:
Outdoors > Indoors.
In general, keeping celebrations outdoors will help you minimize the risk of spreading or contracting COVID during the winter holidays because the outdoors has better ventilation. It is also easier to keep people apart and socially distanced when gatherings are held outside.
A study of 318 COVID-19 outbreak clusters in China has provided experts the reasoning for moving gatherings outdoors. This study included more than a thousand confirmed COVID cases across 120 cities in China. Researchers of the study found that coronavirus transmission mostly occurred in the home and on public transport, where ventilation is poor. Only one transmission occurred outside, where social distancing was not maintained.
“They discovered that of more than 1,200 contacts that were shown to have been infected, only one was outside and they admitted to being close together for over 15 minutes,” says Professor Keith Neal, Emeritus Professor of the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases at the University of Nottingham.
Neal also explained that a person is also less likely to touch an infected surface outdoors. Viral particles will get quickly diluted by fresh air and droplets will immediately fall to the ground where they can no longer be breathed in.
Considering that the cold is now upon us, keeping gatherings outdoors will require creativity. You can bundle up and wear warmer clothing, or set up yards and spaces to provide heat for your family and friends.
Consider airflow indoors.
If gathering outside to prevent COVID is not a feasible option for you during the winter holidays, you can still consider moving your gatherings and festivities indoors. However, staying indoors requires good air circulation.
Keeping the air flowing in your home will help lower the concentrations of viruses indoors. The greater the number of people present in an indoor gathering, the greater the need for ventilation with outdoor air. Give special attention to airflow, especially when you plan on having many guests inside your home. Make sure that high traffic areas, such as the living room, dining room, and toilets, have additional ventilation.
Opening windows and doors, when weather permits, can help you bring in outside air. Operating window or attic fans, and even running a window air conditioner with the vent control open increases ventilation in the room. However, if outdoor air poses a health risk to children, seniors, and asthmatic members of the family, it is recommended that you refrain from opening doors and windows. Instead, using exhaust fans, especially those found in bathrooms and kitchens to remove contaminants directly from the room where the fans are located.
Build a Bubble.
Even when you’re planning to not see friends and family during the winter holidays, you can still maintain in-person relationships by building a trustworthy COVID bubble. The concept of a bubble helps bring people together, even when they’re mostly in isolation.
Sociologists at Oxford University explained in their paper that quarantine bubbles work because of what they term as a “network approach” to social distancing.
Viruses spread when people infect others in their network. So they argue society can work to flatten the rising curve of new infections if people keep distance between groups of individuals. It’s the same logic just as preventing the spread of coronavirus by limiting interactions between individuals themselves.
“There must be a middle ground between all of us staying at home and all of us meeting the people we want in the ways we want to,” said Per Block, the study’s lead author and a sociology research lecturer at Oxford.
The trick in building a COVID bubble is setting up a small group of friends or family (ideally less than 10 people) that share your mindset and commitment about preventing the spread of the pandemic. Lay down the ground rules for bubble-mates and set restrictions about engagements with other individuals outside of your bubble. Remember that in the bubble, you are only as safe as the group member who is least likely to stick to the rules.
Wear A Mask.
COVID spreads mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets. Respiratory droplets are spread to the air when a person coughs, sneezes, talks, shouts, or sings. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. People around may also be able to breathe in the droplets.
Masks are a simple barrier to help prevent respiratory droplets from reaching others. Several studies have shown that masks reduce the spray of droplets when they’re worn properly over the mouth and nose.
The main function of wearing a mask is to protect those around you, in case you are infected with the virus but not showing symptoms. It’s especially important to wear a mask if social distancing, or staying at least 6 feet apart from others, is not possible. Wearing a mask will help you and your loved ones keep safe from COVID during the winter holidays.
Wash Your Hands.
Proper handwashing has been the mainstay of infection control even before the COVID pandemic started. Now, it is even more important to wash your hands to prevent the spread of the virus and to avoid getting others sick.
Plan To Quarantine and Isolate.
Be prepared to quarantine or isolate in case someone in your household or bubble has been exposed to a known COVID case, exhibits symptoms, or is diagnosed. Take note of nearby COVID testing facilities, so you know where to go when you want to get tested. Plan for how you can execute a 14-day quarantine if you are exposed. If someone in your household or bubble gets infected, make a plan for how they can be isolated and cared for for at least 14 days.
Stay Safe this Holiday
As 2020 draws to a close, we are faced with challenges on how to celebrate the winter holidays safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans are used to gathering in large groups, sharing food, drinks, hugs, and gifts during the last 6 weeks of the year, and it is difficult to break these traditions.
This year, we need to be careful and stay vigilant despite our longing to embrace the traditions of the holiday season. Holidays in 2020 are different, but if we follow the recommendations above, we can make sure that our holiday celebrations can still keep our loved ones safe and protected from the virus.