Texas A&M: Navigating COVID-19 Risks This Holiday Season

Thanks to vaccinations, this year’s holiday gatherings will likely feel more festive than last year’s. But for those still weighing whether to host or attend celebrations, new questions will be factored into their decisions as they send and receive invitations: Is it safe to gather? And will other guests be vaccinated?

The answers, said Martha Dannenbaum, director of Student Health Services at Texas A&M University, will come down to the personal risk tolerance of each guest.

While COVID-19 conditions are better than they were a year ago, she said, there are still people who may not be comfortable attending any gatherings. Some might be unwilling to travel, or may decide to cancel. What’s important for those hosting this year, Dannenbaum said, is to respect that people have different levels of concern.

“Be understanding of those who maybe don’t want to come this year for whatever reason, and be welcoming to those who do want to come,” she said.

As for the question of whether planning to get together with loved ones this holiday season is worth the risk, Dannenbaum said people should consider what they need to “feel connected and to feel whole.”

“The benefits of human connections and the social aspects that we have really put off for the last year and a half are very detrimental to our overall wellbeing,” she said.

Dannenbaum added that there are several things hosts can do to make the festivities safer for everyone.

Most people will probably be hosting family members and close friends whose risk tolerance and vaccination status are already known, which she said should help with the planning process. But if they’re planning with some unknown factors, Dannenbaum said, hosts should consider how to arrange their event to accommodate guests who are both comfortable being in public and those who are concerned about safety.

Hosts should ensure that there is good ventilation in the spaces where their guests will congregate, and try to create an environment that will allow people to keep some distance but still be able to participate in the festivities. This may mean setting up a separate area for more hesitant guests to eat away from others.

Dannenbaum said a lack of statistics makes it hard to quantify the risk of breakthrough COVID-19 infections among fully-vaccinated individuals, but anecdotally, she said, it’s probably more of a risk than people realize. And there’s more than COVID-19 to worry about.

“Right now we’re seeing a fairly significant increase in influenza, and I think that’s going to take over COVID for a while,” she said.

But first and foremost, a holiday gathering of vaccinated individuals will be a much safer activity than a gathering of people with varying vaccination statuses, said Timothy Callaghan, a vaccine hesitancy researcher at the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

While the issue has become politicized, Callaghan said science has proven that the three different vaccine options approved for use in the United States are safe and effective, and real-world data backs this up. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s holiday guidance for 2021 advises that people protect those who aren’t eligible for vaccines, such as young children, by getting themselves and others around them vaccinated.

At this point of the pandemic, Callaghan said most adults who still aren’t vaccinated are those who have made that decision “part of their identity and part of their sense of self.”

“So it’s particularly difficult to change those attitudes and beliefs, because they hold on to that belief as central to their outlook on the world,” he said.

Callaghan said even without the polarizing issue of vaccines, the stress and anxiety of the holidays can bring up tensions in any family. It’s important to keep an open mind when talking with relatives about their vaccination status, he said.

“You don’t want it to devolve into some sort of shouting match,” he said. “If anything, treat it from a place of trust, and understand people might have different viewpoints and different perspectives.”

Dannenbaum also encourages hosts to be mindful of the perspectives of their guests, especially those who may feel uncomfortable and need to cancel at the last minute.

“Try to communicate that and support that as the host of an event, and be OK if someone is not comfortable coming for whatever reason and not turn it into a family feud,” she said.

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