"Holiday gatherings, unfortunately, have all the hallmarks of a super spreader event."

spread cheer, not coronavirus

Experts give 5 tips for preventing coronavirus spread during the holidays

While celebrating with only your household is safest, public health experts say there are other ways to reduce the risk of a holiday gathering.

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This holiday season — as coronavirus cases soar, temperatures drop, and people face intensifying pandemic fatigue — public health experts are asking people to skip their holiday gathering.

Iahn Gonsenhauser, a primary care physician and public health expert, understands that the nation is fatigued. Regardless, he comments that unfortunately the virus "doesn't care how lonely we may feel."

"If want to be sitting down with everybody that we care about next year for Thanksgiving, we have to make some sacrifices this year," Gosenhauser tells Inverse.

However, while staying home and celebrating with your quarantine "bubble" is absolutely safest, some people may still feel that gathering with loved ones is worth the risk. If a holiday event is in your future, experts say there are crucial ways you can engineer your celebration to keep it from becoming a coronavirus hotspot.

To make a holiday gathering as safe as possible, public health experts say:

  • Keep it outside.
  • Keep it distanced.
  • Keep it relatively small — this means fewer than 10 people.
  • Wear masks as much as possible.
  • Don't share food or drinks.

Incorporating these precautions could make the difference between a relatively low-risk gathering and a superspreader event.

Sandra Albrecht is a social epidemiologist at Columbia University. Albrecht doesn't go so far as to say everyone needs to skip their holiday shindig outright, especially since, as she puts it, "we all need a reason to celebrate after a very, very hard year."

However, this year's celebration will need to be different from past years, she cautions.

"The holidays bring so much joy for many of us, but during pandemic times, holiday gatherings, unfortunately, have all the hallmarks of a super spreader event," Albrecht tells Inverse.

Why? Celebrations typically have indoor settings, a large number of people, limited mask use, lots of talking and shouting (maybe even singing), and for some, excess alcohol. These factors all considerably increase the risk of transmission.

"These gatherings will likely happen at the same time all around the country, which could signal an explosion of cases all at once," Albrecht cautions. "If people do move forward with holiday gatherings, there are measures they can take to make it safer one for all."

How to make the holidays safer (although not risk-free)— The best way to celebrate together this holiday season is apart. Virtual gatherings are the only risk-free option, virus-wise. That's because, with uncontrolled viral spread across the country, the odds of having an infected Covid-19 person at a holiday gathering of more than 10 people can be high.

This moment is witness to "what is probably the most significant and severe infectious disease and public health crisis that any of us have ever seen in our lifetimes," Gosenhauser says.

"The state that we're in right now is the most dangerous that we've seen yet through this pandemic."

If you want an estimate of how risky your holiday event might be, scientists developed a dynamic map that factors in event size and local county-level case counts. Put in the predicted number of guests, and the map spits out the estimated chance that at least one Covid-19 positive person will be present at the event.

GA Tech's Covid-19 event risk assessment planning tool. The map displays the predicted risk for an event of 25 people on November 16, 2020.

GA Tech

Gosenhauser puts it bluntly:

"If you had a bowl of M&Ms, and there were 100 M&Ms in the bowl, and one of those M&Ms was going to kill somebody at your party, would you put the bowl of M&Ms out? That's what we're dealing with."

Abisola Olulade, a family medicine physician at Sharp Rees-Stealy Downtown hospital, tells Inverse the potential to cause a coronavirus illness or death without realizing it is not just a hypothetical.

"If you are somewhere with high enough case counts this can become a probability," Olulade tells Inverse.

Coronavirus and the holidays: How to reduce risk

Ultimately, public health experts tell Inverse it's possible to reduce — not eliminate — risk.

If people do want to get together in person, a relatively safe option is a driveway hang or driveby celebration, Gonsenhauser says. Each household can park, stay six-feet apart, and eat their own festive dishes while still being able to laugh at Uncle Jimmy's bad jokes or see the family's new baby at a distance.

"It's not the warm embrace that we're used to on Thanksgiving, but it is at least together and in person," Gonsenhauser says. "That's still relatively safe, but allows you to be a little bit more directly connected."

If a driveby hang doesn't suffice, the next safest option is an outdoor, distanced get-together. Ideally, each household would have their own table and bring their own food and drinks. Buffets, potlucks, or family-style meals are a no-go this year.

"Any activities outdoors would be much more beneficial than activities indoors," Albrecht says.

Gathering around a fire pit, meeting at the park, watching a favorite holiday movie on an outdoor projector, listening to a holiday album, or going on a socially distant hike are all safer ways to come together than eating turkey in Grandma's dining room.

Even at an outdoor event, designate someone to disinfect commonly used surfaces and clearly outline Covid-19 precautions for guests, Olulade suggests. "Always remember: Less is more," she says.

Gonsenhauser and Albrecht agree, advising people to keep the number of guests under 10. Ideally, those would be people within your household or pod, Albrecht adds.

When it comes to your invite list, it's important to consider: where and how people traveled to the venue, their age, medical vulnerabilities to Covid-19, and how guests take precautions in the days leading up to the celebration. Did they self isolate for a week and get tested — or roll-up after a crowded "Friendsgiving"?

"If you are someone over the age of 65 or have a chronic condition that puts you at risk of getting severely ill from coronavirus infection it is not advisable for you to attend in-person holiday gatherings," Olulade says.

People who are feeling sick or have been exposed within two weeks shouldn't come either, she adds.

However, it's important to note that even a distanced, outdoor event can turn dangerous as time goes on and comfort levels increase.

It's human nature: We tend to let our guard down when we get together, are eating and drinking, and feel emotionally close.

"It's really difficult to maintain adequate precautions once you've done that," Gosenhauser.

The riskiest option this holiday season is an indoor event. If celebrating inside is the only option, Gonsenhauser advises meeting in a large venue that can accommodate household-specific tables. Incorporating extra ventilation from windows, fans, air conditioning units, and air filters is also worthwhile to keep air flowing.

Like any public pandemic event — indoors or outside — wearing a mask and social distancing are lifesaving.

"There is a strong desire for things to 'go back to normal' which is perfectly human, but things are not normal," Olulade says.

"The virus, although invisible, is still very much here spreading efficiently and will continue to run rampant through our communities unless we take distancing, masking, and handwashing measures seriously. It is important, crucial even that we accept this reality."

Short-term pain, long-term gain — All three experts suggest people frame the adoption of new, coronavirus-friendly Covid-19 rituals as loving sacrifices that ensure future health and normalcy.

"Lives are on the line here, and we run the risk of contributing to the collapse of our healthcare system if we don’t change the way we celebrate the holidays," Albrecht says.

"Look at it as a temporary sacrifice for this year, so that we can all be together again next year to celebrate with all our loved ones."

Surviving the pandemic is a "marathon, not a sprint," Olulade says. "We can see the finish line over the hill in the distance, but we are just not there yet."

If you can't celebrate the holidays with loved ones, it's crucial to exercise, get good sleep, and find moments of joy that promote well being, Olulade says.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel," Gonsenhauser says. "It's just a question of how much and how deep of a darkness that we have to cross before we get there. We can make the tunnel shorter — we just have to do it together."

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