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Army doctors provide COVID-19 safety tips for the holiday season

Image of Soldiers wearing masks, looking at flight information in airport. Soldiers assigned to 105th Military Police Company, Buffalo, New York, check the arrival boards at Buffalo-Niagara International Airport, supporting the state’s October travel advisory. The team meets arriving passengers to distribute the State Department of Health Traveler form to travelers coming from restricted states. (Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Brandy Fowler)

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Celebrating the holidays during a pandemic may bring additional challenges for people this year.

With this in mind, infectious disease experts at Brooke Army Medical Center, located on Joint Base San Antonio-Fort San Houston in Texas, recently offered some tips to help keep families safe whether they are traveling or entertaining at home.

“This year people have to think about their personal risk threshold and the risk benefit of the situation,” said Air Force Col. (Dr.) Heather Yun, deputy commander for medical services at BAMC, and an infectious disease specialist.

There are a number of factors people should consider when deciding how they want to spend the holidays, including their own age and health, as well as the health of others around them who may be immunocompromised or at a higher risk.

“You don’t want to bring COVID-19 into one of those environments,” Yun said.

Travel

Before travel, people should look up the number of COVID-19 infections in the area, and the requirements of their destination, particularly if it’s outside the continental United States.

“Many places have some sort of expectations as to what you need to do when you get there,” Yun said.

A good tool to use is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for up-to-date COVID-19 transmission rates across the globe. Because rules vary widely state-by-state and change frequently, it’s a good idea to check the state’s official website for guidance before traveling.

“These rates change constantly, so you want to keep checking back with the CDC or with the state websites up until at least a week before you go,” said Army Col. Steven Spencer, BAMC chief of pediatrics and also an infectious disease specialist.

There are steps people can take while traveling to help mitigate risk, including wearing a mask, washing hands and taking hand sanitizer on the plane. Also, taking direct flights is a good strategy for avoiding unnecessary contact at multiple airports.

“The air circulation on planes actually is so good that it looks like being on an airplane, unless you are sitting right next to someone that has COVID-19, is probably one of the safer enclosed spaces because of the number of air exchanges and the way the air travels around the sides and the floor of the plane,” Yun said.

People also may opt to drive to their destination this year. If driving, they should be cautious at rest stops, hotels and restaurants. For example, people may want to bring provisions to avoid hot spots along their travel route, Yun advised. A helpful tip is for travelers to avoid using public transportation when they reach their destination when possible to help lower unnecessary exposure.

Yun said people should calculate the risks versus the reward when considering holiday travel.

“All travel is not equal, perhaps you have been waiting months to see your aging parents and you don’t know how much longer the pandemic is going to last,” she said. “If you’re traveling to be a support system for someone, you are going to want to put yourself into a protective bubble for about 14 days prior to travel. Almost like an elective quarantine.

“This is a time to be extra cautious about wearing a mask, washing your hands, and watching your distance,” she added. “It’s not the time to take extra risks like going out and attending large social gatherings. Also if you are not feeling well, you should re-evaluate traveling and get tested if you are symptomatic.”

Parents traveling with children may need to consider if their child will be required to quarantine for a period before returning to an in-person classroom setting.

“Each school district has their own set of requirements,” Spencer said. “You will need to check with your school district to see what their requirements are.”

Holiday Gatherings

Workplace potlucks are not the best avenue for celebration this year. Work teams bringing food from home, gathering in a breakroom, and eating and drinking with masks off is not the safest way to celebrate, Yun said.

But that doesn’t mean that workplace celebrations are out of the question. Yun encouraged teams to be creative when planning workplace celebrations this year. “You may decide to have a virtual gathering vs. in person or a drive-by parade for colleagues who have been isolated at home,” she said.

When planning a holiday gathering, people should keep in mind the size of the group, the location and who is going to be there.

“General guidelines are you want to keep the size of the group small,” Yun said. “The higher the risk of the individuals who are going to be involved the more likely you want to do something like a 14-day quarantine before the event. That way, you are maximizing the opportunities that everybody is going to be safe.”

When possible, hold celebrations outdoors. If the event has to be held indoors, make sure there is good ventilation by opening doors and windows. When possible, seat members of the same household together at separate tables. Also, keep masks on unless eating or drinking and limit the duration of exposure.

“It’s a much different risk situation if you are bringing your in-laws over to your house for two hours, and having your masks off for 30 minutes while you eat, versus having people fly in and stay in your house for five days,” Yun said.

This year, instead of a buffet-style meal, prepare individual portions or have one person dishing out the food for guests to limit the number of hands touching utensils.

When opting for dinner at a restaurant, consider takeout or outdoor dining.

“If you are eating indoors, you are going to want look for large, well-ventilated spaces with a lot of air movement,” Yun said. “You also don’t want a place with a lot of background noise where people have to shout at each other. That may increase the risk for respiratory virus transmission.”

Look for restaurants that adhere to all safety guidelines, including servers wearing masks and make sure tables are spaced apart.

Whether at work or at home, Yun suggested people look at this time as an opportunity to create new holiday traditions with family and friends. “We may have to skip the large gatherings, but we can find new ways to celebrate, such as a special gift exchange or a virtual holiday story night.”

Black Friday Shopping

Yun said she would skip physically going into crowded stores this year and order online instead or opt for curbside pickup, which is a safer option and may save you time. If you do plan to physically shop, make a list ahead of time so you can quickly get what you need; and remember to always wear a face mask and use hand sanitizer when you’re done.

Get a Flu Shot

Both Yun and Spencer agree, getting the flu vaccine this year is more important than ever for safety purposes as well as to ensure the healthcare system isn’t overburdened.

“If you are 6 months or above, we definitely recommend getting the flu shot this year,” Yun said.

“The flu shot for kids, ages 6 to 35 months, is a different vaccine,” Spencer added. “We have the vaccine here and available at BAMC right now.”

Health and Well-being

The past months have been stressful, and the upcoming holidays can add additional stress for many. If someone is in need of help, Yun suggests they talk with a behavioral health specialist, chaplain, colleague or friend. There are several resources available throughout the community.

“The holidays can be a fun time, but they can also be an exhausting time for a lot of people under the best of circumstances,” Yun said. “Please take the holidays as an opportunity to reach out to neighbors and community members who may be feeling extra isolated. Let’s take this opportunity to really come together, not with our hands, but with our hearts. Reach out to those folks who might need a little extra love and attention this time of year.”

For more holiday safety tips, visit the CDC’s COVID-19 holiday page, and the CDC’s COVID-19 travel page.

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