Your best COVID defense during the holidays:

‘Mask up’ and take precautions, infectious disease specialists say

Chris Baliga, MD

Chris Baliga, MD

An infectious disease expert says a weary population entering a second straight holiday season burdened by the COVID-19 pandemic are anxious to put this “misadventure” behind them.

There are signs that Americans — with a significant percentage of the population having been vaccinated — are beginning to reemerge in greater numbers than last year for the greatest social holiday season of the calendar year, highlighted by Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But amid the excitement, caution needs to be exercised by the traveling public. Even Santa might be masked.

Dr. Chris Baliga, the medical director for infection prevention and control at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health in Seattle, said that despite a slow, but encouraging decline in COVID numbers, common-sense precautions should continue.

“There’s definitely a group of people who are wanting to return to the holidays as normal, and life as normal,” Baliga said.

“There’s another group that’s vaccinated and still worry about it, but feel they are well prepared. And then there’s yet another group that remains very concerned about COVID and probably will not be traveling and engaging in group activities this year.”

To get to those family gatherings, many will hit the highways or travel by air. The number of travelers will be daunting, even for veteran travelers.

All one needs to do is take a look at Sea-Tac Airport. Its common areas are full of travelers, and security lines are long. The Transportation Security Administration is reporting that 2.5 times more people have passed through security checkpoints than at this time last year.

With federal mask mandates at airports in place, travelers are cautioned to keep abreast of new travel requirements necessitated by the pandemic. That’s especially pertinent for those heading to international destinations.

Preparation and precautions

Preparation is key to minimizing the chance of contracting the coronavirus. Getting fully vaccinated and wearing masks while in public and in social settings is key.

“If you’re in public at an indoor venue where there’s a lot of people and the ventilation isn’t good, then masking is recommended regardless of your vaccination status,” he said. “Of course, if you’re traveling on public transportation, masking is required. It just makes sense to me to keep those extra layers of protection.”

Baliga cautioned that those with weakened immune systems who have been vaccinated often find they don’t respond to the vaccine as well as others. For them, and for the elderly and those who have chosen not to get vaccinated, masking is their best line of defense.

He cautioned that the vaccine, while effective, isn’t fool-proof. But those who contract the virus despite being vaccinated most often exhibit mild symptoms and are able to avoid a visit to the hospital — and a stay in the intensive care unit.

Last Friday, the Food and Drug Administration announced that all people now vaccinated are eligible to receive the booster shot.

“I would encourage them to get it,” Baliga said. “We do see the effectiveness [of the vaccine] start to wane over time.”

It may be challenging to get a booster shot before Christmas, though. With the announcement, Baliga said pharmacies, medical centers and pop-up clinics are expected to be inundated with requests for appointments.

Stress-free celebration

Here are some guidelines that Baliga says people planning to travel should do to minimize their exposure to COVID:

• If you have a choice of transportation, go by car. “You can bypass all the concerns about crowded airports and planes,” he said.

• If public transportation by air or rail is necessary, use a mask when indoors and around people you don’t know.

• Be judicious about when and how long you have your mask off while dining in public. “I would caution people that their greatest risk is when they take their mask off when drinking or eating,” Baliga said.

• If you’re elderly or have a weakened immune system, consider getting a COVID test before heading out for the holidays. A negative test offers some reassurance.

• Continue washing your hands to guard against viral transmission.

Dr. Greg Schrank, assistant professor of medicine specializing in infectious diseases at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, said many international destinations still have mandatory quarantine periods and testing requirements.

“Outside of specific requirements that are enforced by a country, the decision of an individual to quarantine should be based on whether they develop any COVID-19 symptoms,” Schrank said.

Some countries may require you to self-isolate or restrict movement on arrival. For example, travelers cannot enter Japan and New Zealand, but that’s subject to change, so it’s best to check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.

The CDC says that people who are fully vaccinated or who have recovered from COVID within the last three months, do not need to quarantine after travel, even if they’ve come in contact with someone who had COVID in the previous 14 days.

If you are not fully vaccinated, the CDC recommends taking a test one to three days before travel.

Lots of homebodies

A significant number of folks plan to stay home this holiday season. A survey by researchers from The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center found that nearly three-fourths of Americans plan to celebrate just with household members, and 46% say they will require unvaccinated guests to test negative for COVID. About half also said they would ask their guests to wear facemasks, compared to 67% of respondents surveyed in 2020.

Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician from Atlanta, said people are cautious this holiday season and are wary about facing another round of COVID. She said that even if your holiday participants have been vaccinated, it’s still wise to use caution.

Shu told United Press International that while the pandemic is easing, we’re not back to pre-pandemic times yet.

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