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Minimize COVID-19 holiday spread with small gatherings, mask wearing

Soldiers standing in a line, wearing masks Ft. Stewart, Georgia soldiers prepare to deploy during the holidays. (Photo courtesy of Ft. Stewart Public Affairs.)

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The holiday season is upon us, and so is a drastic rise in coronavirus cases, now in the red zone across most of the U.S. and its territories. How can you celebrate holiday gatherings while staying as safe as possible from the disease?

Military and public health officials agree: For Thanksgiving, staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others. If you must travel, be informed of the risks involved.

“I completely understand the stressors the holidays add during these unprecedented times,” said Air Force Col. Gwendolyn Foster, commander of the 60th Medical Group at Travis Air Force Base. ”We all want to connect and be close with family during the holiday, mine included; however, in light of the increase in COVID-19 cases across the United States, the risk is too great.”

The Armed Forces Health Surveillance Division (AFHSD) said in a briefing statement: “There is no indication the COVID-19 situation will be reversing any time soon….The probability exists for this situation to go from bad to worse as we head into the holidays.”

In fact, as of Nov. 20, 95 of 120 military installation markets were at “very high risk (red) for COVID-19,” AFHSD Integrated Biosurveillance Chief Juan Ubiera said in a Nov. 24 statement. AFHSD defines markets as groups of military installations with the same general geographic area. Hot spots are defined as 25 new cases per 100,000/day for all counties within 30 miles of a given installation or market, Ubiera stated. 

The Department of Defense has reported approximately 109,000 COVID-19 cases and 119 deaths. That compares to the U.S. civilian figures of more than 12.3 million cases and more than 258,000 deaths based on data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The risk of COVID in the local civilian community is a very good proxy for the risk of an installation….where they shop, worship, eat, go to school, and visit friends and family” rather than where they work, said Navy Capt. Natalie Wells, AFHSD chief of Epidemiology and Analysis.

Person washing hands
Military and public health personnel are urging Americans not to travel during the holidays, and, if they do, to follow all necessary precautions – wear a mask, socially distance and wash hands frequently. (Courtesy Photo from 21st Space Wing, Peterson AFB, Colorado.)

Army Sgt. Maj. Michael Gragg, the Defense Health Agency’s senior enlisted leader, stated “These holidays may look a bit different than we anticipated, but that does not diminish their relevance.” He suggested using “lessons learned” over the last year of the pandemic for safer holidays.

“Continue to follow local guidelines, wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your face, stay physically distanced and wear a two-layer mask,” he said. “Your discipline in doing these simple things will get us through the finish line. Some of us are going to miss seeing family and friends, while others will be working through the holidays to stay in the fight. I urge all of you to find ways to stay socially connected with loved ones while maintaining appropriate physical distance.”

More than 120 DOD Title 10 personnel have been deployed to support the COVID-19 response to the medical surge needs. Nearly 17,000 National Guard and more than 900 state active duty personnel have also been deployed.

The CDC is urging Americans not to travel to holiday gatherings if they have recently been diagnosed with COVID-19 and have not met the criteria for when it is safe to be around others. Or if they have symptoms of COVID-19, are awaiting coronavirus test results, may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 within the last 14 days or are at increased risk of severe illness.

The CDC is particularly emphatic about urging extra precautions for family members who live outside the gathering place, such as military personnel or college students returning home for the holidays. Service personnel, students or other guests who do not live with you or in your housing unit should be considered from different households and therefore pose potentially greater risks of disease exposure.

Duration of contact also counts, the CDC website also informed – ‘Being within six feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more greatly increases the risk of becoming sick and requires a 14-day personal quarantine.' Some individuals with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, which pushes the risks even higher.

Additionally, the CDC recommends having holiday gatherings outdoors, if possible. If winter weather stops outdoor gatherings, stay indoors but open windows and doors to circulate air. COVID-19 virus particles do not survive as long outdoors as they do in confined poorly ventilated and fully enclosed indoor spaces.

DOD travel guidelines remain in effect and are detailed in an Aug. 6 memorandum, “Force Health Protection Guidance (Supplement 12),” for personnel traveling during the pandemic. This memo is under revision and will be published in the next few days, said AFHSD Integrated Biosurveillance Chief Dr. Jose Sanchez.

“The revised memo will address pre- and post-testing guidance, the restriction-to-movement period after travel, provision of waivers and post-travel recommendations to decrease transmission,” he said.

“It is recommended that family members or other close contacts should consider having a post-travel COVID-19 molecular PCR test within 3-5 days of return, especially if travel included an area or country with high-level transmission,” Sanchez added.

The CDC offers a wealth of information about holiday gatherings with those outside the immediate host household and to help make the decision whether to travel to places outside your immediate home, including international travel.

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