We all remember the 2020 holidays; a drastically different version of holidays past. And while joy can be abundant in any gathering, no matter how small, I know I’m not the only one who’s looking forward to bigger, more robust celebrations again. Long evenings spent with loved ones around the dinner table, kids chasing each other underfoot—these are the moments we cherish. This year, things are already looking a bit brighter.
I spent the weeks leading up to both Thanksgiving and Christmas last year quarantining with my small family of four so that we could get together with my parents and my 85-year-old grandmother. We cautiously went to school and work and didn’t do much else. Now, thanks to vaccinations and wider availability of rapid tests, quarantines are generally not necessary—something to be thankful for, indeed.
It’s been a long pandemic, to say the least, and we need to prioritize mental health in addition to physical health. Spending time with family and friends feeds the soul, especially after the isolation that’s been a significant part of the past two years.
But we're not out of the woods yet. Currently, 70% of the U.S. adult population is fully vaccinated, and kids as young as 5 are now eligible for the shots. However, case numbers are starting to creep up again. Rates of community transmission are extremely high in many parts of the country, so if you’re traveling this year, it’s helpful to keep an eye on case numbers and vaccination rates at your destination.
You may also have family members who aren’t yet vaccinated—whether that’s by choice or because they’re too young. That can make holiday gatherings a little more risky, depending on attendees’ ages and underlying conditions.
The name of the game? Risk management. This year, we have new tools (vaccines and rapid tests) and new knowledge (better information about how the virus spreads; statistics on vaccine efficacy) to keep ourselves and our loved ones safer. We are better equipped to weigh the risks and benefits.
Yes, we've spent the past almost two years exhausted with worry and fear. But Covid is still prevalent, and letting our guard down can come with serious consequences, especially for the unvaccinated.
The good news is that we can still make the most of this holiday season, with a few caveats: If you’re eligible for a booster, get one. If you’re sneezing and coughing, stay home. Try to test before you go. Here’s what else you need to know about celebrating the upcoming winter holidays in a second pandemic year.
Get a vaccine or booster for all eligible family members
The easiest way to make the holidays safer for all involved? Making sure everyone who can be vaccinated is vaccinated. Shots are currently available for everyone age 5 and up, which means that even younger kids could have both their shots by the time Christmas rolls around.
The mRNA vaccines have an average efficacy rate of about 90%: They can significantly reduce your risk of symptoms, severe illness and hospitalization were you to contract the virus. Getting those vaccinated who are eligible also lends protection to kids younger than 5, who aren’t able to get vaccinated yet, like your cousin’s newborn whom you’re so excited to meet.
Case numbers among unvaccinated people are five times higher than among vaccinated individuals, but because breakthrough infections do occur, it’s worth getting a third dose if you meet the requirements. (It’s that extra layer of protection that we want.)
And if you have any unvaccinated family members? Consider having a conversation with them—which is the most effective way to change opinions. You could also ask them to take a rapid test the day of the event to help put your mind at ease. Or it might be simplest to aim for an outdoor gathering.
Consider rapid testing, both before and after
Generally speaking, rapid tests are much more widely available now than they were last year, and we should be relying on them more heavily, especially when traveling. But they’re also useful if you’re just heading to a relative’s house nearby. Have everyone in your group take one before you go to any holiday gatherings this year. The tests are about 85% effective when used correctly—and having the results beforehand can really help assuage anxiety when you’re hugging Grandma and worried about possible transmission.
It’s also important to take a rapid test three to five days after the celebration—when you’re heading back to work and school. This can help ensure you’re not spreading the virus around outside of your family, and protecting the health of those around you.
Host some part of the event outdoors
Ventilation is still important, even with other safety measures in place. We know the virus can circulate more freely indoors, so opening windows, running an air filter or just hosting the event itself in an outdoor space can play a part in reducing spread, especially if your event is on the larger side.
Ask guests with symptoms to stay home
If anyone in your immediate family is showing symptoms, like sneezing or coughing, consider staying home and skipping the party. Ask guests to do the same. You could take a rapid test to see whether it’s Covid or a cold, but passing on any germs at this trying time seems like a pretty big party foul. Being mindful of school quarantine requirements can be a big help to parents, who may not be able to take more time off if their kid comes down with something over holiday break. Because airborne droplets are a primary mode of transmission for many respiratory viruses, not just Covid, it’s better to play it safe here.
Hopefully, with vaccinations and more frequent testing on the rise, we’re set to have a holiday season that feels *almost* normal.
A version of this post was originally published on Nov. 15. It has been updated.