SHU health faculty answers questions on social distancing during holidays

Public health experts offer advice for safe holiday shopping and family gatherings

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FAIRFIELD, CT – The winter holidays in November and December typically are a time when people meet up with family and friends to celebrate together. Not this year, however. The ongoing pandemic—especially with its current surge—is going to make our holiday tables look different this year.

At Sacred Heart University’s public health department, Jacqueline Vernarelli, assistant professor and director of research education, and Sofía Curdumí Pendley, clinical assistant professor, answered questions about staying safe this holiday season while still celebrating and maintaining traditions.

Activities with moderate risk

Q: How do I stay safe while I’m shopping for the holidays?

Vernarelli: Online shopping is a great way to avoid crowds at indoor locations this holiday season. There are also many wonderful small businesses here in Connecticut that we can support while following safety guidelines.

If you do go out to the stores, choose shops that have strict mask policies and hand-sanitizing stations. Some stores offer curbside pick-up or appointment-based shopping. Wear a mask, maintain a distance of at least six feet from other shoppers and be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after leaving the store. To keep shopping risk low, go alone.

The most recent CDC guidance indicates that COVID-19 can spread within six feet of someone who is infected with the disease, even when that exposure is for a total of 15 minutes over 24 hours; and those 15 minutes don’t have to be consecutive. This means having three, five-minute encounters over the course of a day increases risk. Holiday shopping with a friend can cross that threshold quickly (the car ride, waiting in the checkout line together, grabbing mid-outing coffees, etc.).

Activities with a higher risk

Q: What if I go to a holiday party, but with a limited number of guests?

Vernarelli: Risk increases any time you are indoors or in a crowded outdoor area where mask-wearing and social distancing are not maintained. At this point, we all know to avoid crowds and understand the risk that comes with attending a big holiday party. However, currently the largest contributor to COVID spread is small holiday gatherings. Fewer people means more interaction, and when these interactions are in smaller spaces (like a house or apartment), maintaining distance is harder. Unfortunately, these types of gatherings should be avoided (or at least reimagined) this year.

Pendley: I think that holiday parties where people are gathering with others outside of their households pose a significant risk for COVID spread. I would avoid these types of gatherings. Instead, if you’d like to visit with family and friends over the holidays, try a wintery walk or hike outside, wearing masks if you can’t be six feet apart. If the weather is nice, sitting outside together is another option.

Q; How do I host a safe Thanksgiving dinner if masks come off while eating?

Vernarelli: Though difficult, limiting exposure from people outside your household is the safest way to share a holiday meal. Just because you are related to someone does not mean your risk while interacting is any lower. Mask-wearing is impossible during mealtimes, and there aren’t many dining tables that allow us to be six feet away from our dining partners, so risk is much higher there.

Pendley: I think that, due to the circumstances, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner should be reinvented this year. There is joy in having a Thanksgiving dinner with your immediate family members. Traveling over the holidays and gathering with family members increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 and endangering older generations.

If you are going to gather with family outside of your house, keep the group small. Have a conversation with your family members to make a plan to lower the risk of infection as much as possible. Between now and Thanksgiving, you and your family should be really strict about social distancing and mask wearing. An extra layer of precaution would be for everyone to take a test before visiting with others outside of your house.

The more layers of prevention techniques you use, the better.

If you must travel for Thanksgiving or other holidays, ideally every traveler would quarantine for two weeks – especially if they are coming from college campuses or states on Connecticut’s travel advisory list. However, this is really hard to do. If you are unable to quarantine from the rest of your household for two weeks, you should quarantine at home for as long as possible (the longer, the better) and then get tested (3-5 days after arrival) before reducing precautions.

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