In recent years, the most wonderful time of the year became … complicated. In 2020, it was safest to stay apart from family and friends. In 2021, the availability of COVID-19 vaccines made gathering safer, but the highly contagious omicron variant was roaring to life.
This year, most people have returned to a largely normal existence, and that includes holiday parties and events. But COVID-19 continues to circulate, as do cold and flu viruses. Of particular concern for young children and older adults is RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, which has filled pediatric hospitals with children struggling to breathe normally.
Older adults and the immunocompromised continue to be at risk for complications of all these diseases, but they’re tired of missing out on the holly jollies, too.
“This year feels particularly tough because everyone is really longing to return to our normal traditions after three long years,” says Emily Sickbert-Bennett, PhD, director of UNC Medical Center Infection Prevention. “The good news is that we have learned so much and we have the tools to navigate the circulating viruses and still bring the joy back to our traditions.”
Here’s what you can do to celebrate the holidays in a safer way:
1. Get your COVID-19 booster shot and your flu shot.
Vaccinations don’t prevent every case of an illness, but they do lessen its severity and make it less likely you’ll pass the virus to others. Everyone age 5 and up is eligible for a bivalent booster shot that’s targeted to the COVID-19 strains that have been most prevalent recently. Children ages 6 months to 5 years are eligible for the primary series.
Children 6 months and older and adults can get a flu shot, which is formulated every year to match the flu strains expected to circulate.
“Vaccines are very effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalization,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says, and they “prevent viruses from continuing to circulate so widely. The more they circulate, the more they adapt and create new variants that can continue to cause more illness.”
2. Plan around your most vulnerable people.
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over for people most at risk of illness or death, including the immunocompromised and older adults. The flu can be deadly for some people, and parents are especially concerned about RSV, which can be dangerous to babies.
If you’re gathering with friends or family, take note of who will be present and plan infection mitigation accordingly. You might choose to use an at-home COVID-19 test before going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, or to wear a mask when holding your friend’s new baby. Talk to your loved ones and figure out how to layer measures in a way that helps everyone feel safe.
“Masks, vaccines, staying away when sick—all of these tools are effective strategies that are now widely available. Selectively using them when you are in higher-risk situations can help you and your loved ones stay safe while still gathering during the holidays.”
3. If you feel sick, stay home.
It’s a bummer, especially after the past couple of years, but if you’re not feeling well or have symptoms of COVID-19, the flu or another contagious illness, you need to stay home and away from others.
Keep a Plan B in mind, such as moving a visit to the new year or connecting virtually if plans fall through.
4. Wash your hands often and wipe down surfaces.
Wash your hands often with soap and water or use hand sanitizer to prevent germs from entering your body and making you sick. Good hand hygiene is important for preventing the spread of many illnesses, such as RSV, the flu and stomach bugs. Use disinfectant on counters, doorknobs and other surfaces that are touched often.
“When it comes to meal preparation and shared meals, this is an important infection prevention measure for all kinds of infectious diseases,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says.
5. Keep the big picture in mind.
We’re in a better place with COVID-19 than we have been in the last two holiday seasons, because of vaccinations and effective treatments. But the virus continues to cause serious illness and even death in some people.
RSV, the flu and other viruses also can be life-threatening, and are certainly unpleasant to experience for anyone.
“These years have taught us how precious it is to gather and be together, but also that we have a responsibility to take care of each other,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says. “We can keep that focus while enjoying in-person festivities again.”
Talk to your doctor about how to stay healthy this winter. Need a doctor? Find one near you.