Chanelle Nibbelink for MediaFrolic
There’s one thing to be thankful for this year: It’s not Thanksgiving 2020. A year ago the vaccines weren’t approved, the daily deaths skyrocketed – to over 2,000 a day by December – and many Americans crouched settled down and skipped the holiday celebrations to reduce their risks.
This year, 80% of people 12 years old and older are vaccinated with at least one vaccine, and about half of Americans plan to gather in groups of 10 or more for the holidays, a recent survey shows.
While many of us are ready to restart our vacation traditions, COVID cases are skyrocketing again – with nearly 95,000 new cases per day. Experts warn that we still need to keep an eye on COVID risk reduction. Even if your family is fully vaccinated, keep in mind that your most vulnerable family members, especially people over 80 or the immunocompromised, are still at a higher risk for severe COVID.
Almost two years after this pandemic, we learned a lot about how to reduce the risk of contracting and spreading this virus, including the simple steps of masking and hand washing. Let’s not forget now.
Here are some reminders on how to keep your family gatherings safe.
When meeting with grandparents or other elders, be aware: You are still at risk
Reality Check: People over 80 have an increased risk of dying from COVID, even if they are vaccinated
While the vaccines offer strong protection against hospitalization and death, breakthrough infections are a reality. Often times, coronavirus infection will result in only mild illness after vaccination, and sometimes people will test positive but show no symptoms at all. However, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are at higher risk of having a major breakthrough in COVID.
While breakthroughs rarely lead to hospitalization or death, the odds are higher for a group. As reported by MediaFrolic, August CDC data showed that fully vaccinated people aged 80 or older were approximately 13 times more likely to die of COVID compared to the general vaccinated population (all ages). That’s one reason getting boosters is especially important for older adults.
“We need to be aware of this when people congregate across generations,” said Ohio State University doctor and epidemiologist William Miller. “Grandpa and Grandma are relatively protected if they weren’t vaccinated, but they’re still at risk,” he says.
Therefore, it makes sense to make arrangements during your trip and in the week leading up to a party that is attended by older friends and relatives.
“I would absolutely encourage people to keep wearing masks,” Miller says in crowded indoor locations like grocery stores, even though it’s not mandatory. This will reduce the risk of being exposed to the virus and passing it on. And remember, the TSA’s face mask requirement will remain in effect until January 18, 2022, requiring masking at airports, on board commercial airlines, and on commuter bus and train systems.
So the bottom line is, even if everyone invited to your holiday get-together is vaccinated, protecting loved ones who are older or immunocompromised is important.
Get a booster shot if you’re eligible
Federal health officials now recommend COVID vaccine boosters to all adults six months after their last vaccination – and they can be especially important for adults over 50 or any adult with underlying medical conditions or a high-risk job. Getting one before vacation trips and gatherings could increase your immunity to COVID.
The agencies’ decision was based on new evidence that immunity can decrease over time and on evidence showing that a booster dose, as the name suggests, can increase protection.
Some of the latest real world data comes from the UK. In September the British government introduced a booster program aimed at people aged 50 and over.
White House medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said the new analysis suggests a significant increase in protection (against symptomatic infection) with a booster dose. “If you look at the third dose in people whose protection has dropped to about 63%, you increase it back to at least 94%, which is really pretty impressive,” he says. “That’s exactly what you want from boosters.”
According to Fauci, immunity begins to recover within days of a booster dose, although you won’t receive the peak of protection for two to four weeks. Before attending indoor holiday get-togethers, he says, especially in places with high virus transmission, “I would recommend that if you are eligible for a refresher, get going now.”
Rapid tests can protect your guests. So, take it with the times
To reduce the risk, you can ask your guests to take a COVID test before a large holiday gathering. A year ago it was difficult to get real-time information from COVID tests due to delays in test results and a lack of quick test options. There are now many over-the-counter antigen rapid tests such as the Abbott BinaxNOW or Orasure InteliSwab, which are available online and in pharmacies.
“A rapid antigen test is an extra layer of protection for everyone,” says Judy Guzman-Cottrill, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Oregon Health and Sciences University.
“The antigen tests are a quick snapshot to see if the viral proteins are present in that person’s nose that day,” explains Guzman-Cottrill. So if a person has just been exposed and the virus is still incubating, they could get a negative result one day followed by a positive result the next day.
The tests aren’t 100% reliable if someone has just been exposed, explains Emily Landon, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Chicago. “The test really doesn’t pick up really low levels of the virus in your nose, so it won’t detect any really early infection,” she says. Therefore, she recommends taking the test in the morning of the meeting or as briefly as possible at the beginning of the meeting.
Some families test before travel and then again when they arrive at their destination, depending on the level of risk of the people they are staying with. (Note: the instructions vary depending on which test you buy. For example, BinaxNOW instructs that people should be tested twice over three days with at least 24 hours between tests for the most accurate results)
William Miller is also on board with a test-to-be-safe strategy. “It’s kind of a mindset,” Miller says. It is a way of signaling: let’s make the visit as safe as possible.
Carefully consider how you can involve unvaccinated family members
The decision of who to invite into your home is entirely up to you, but experts say at this point in the pandemic that a fully vaccinated group is the safest scenario.
“I think it’s reasonable for people to ask their guests to be vaccinated,” says Guzman-Cottrill, especially if the guests include children who are too young to be vaccinated (or who have only had their first vaccination) or People are less likely to have strong immune systems in response to the vaccine, such as those who are immunocompromised. “These are the people we really need to make sure we are as safe as possible because this pandemic is not over yet,” she added.
Compulsory vaccination could lead to hurt feelings or conflict, but Miller suggests crafting the decision as a way to protect older loved ones. “I really think it’s perfectly acceptable to say, ‘I’m sorry you haven’t been vaccinated. You know, Grandma is here and if you come it increases her risk a lot,'” he says.
An alternative option is to ask an unvaccinated guest to perform a laboratory-based PCR test 24 to 48 hours before the event (if the results are available on time) or a rapid COVID test shortly before the event’s arrival. In addition, Landon recommends asking unvaccinated guests to take extra precautions in the week leading up to the event, including wearing masks in public places and limiting exposure to other unvaccinated people.
“We think with the Delta variant, most people get sick a few days after exposure, but it can take up to a week, maybe a little longer,” explains Landon before you have close, unmasked contact with an at-risk person. ” , she says.
Take precautions if your young child is unvaccinated or just received one vaccination
Many children ages 5-11 have received their first of two recommended doses but won’t be eligible for a second dose until after the Thanksgiving holiday. Immunity builds up gradually after vaccination, but it is not known exactly how much protection just one dose of the COVID vaccine will give children, ”says Guzman-Cottrill.
“I know a lot of families are in this annoying limbo right now because their children don’t get fully vaccinated until Thanksgiving,” she says. Given this ‘limbo’ state, “the really important thing to remember is that this is not the time for these families to lose their vigilance,” she says. It’s not a reason to cancel multigenerational meetings, but it’s a reminder to take precautionary measures.
So what precautions are recommended? It depends a bit on the health and age of the relatives who will be attending will pose a lot of risks, “says Landon.
But if the grandparent is over 80 and has medical problems, the risk of a bad result is much higher.
An easy step if you are concerned about your unvaccinated children passing the virus on to grandparents is to mask yourself in public not only during the visit but also a week in advance, especially avoiding crowded indoor spaces, even if Mask requirements do not apply.
She says she wouldn’t recommend keeping children out of school to avoid exposure unless your children’s school comes with additional risks – such as a case outbreak or lack of masking. If circumstances warrant missing school to protect a high-risk relative, “then this may be a layer you want to add,” Landon says.
Another option: if you live in a temperate climate, stay outdoors as much as possible for mixed-generation social events and may choose not to stay in the same house as your grandparents.
“Just come to the big event during the day and stay in a hotel,” Landon suggests. Or let the grandparents sleep in a hotel, she adds.
Bottom line: “You have to think about the risk to the people involved – what would happen if they got COVID,” says Landon. And better be on the safe side.