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Not giving Grandma COVID-19 is this holiday season’s best gift

Experts discuss when, how to say no to gatherings if safety is not a priority

covid holiday safety

When family members disagree about COVID-19 safety precautions, planning holiday celebrations is fraught with conflict and potential health risk. And with the recent spike in positive cases of the virus, should we be gathering at all?  

“If an extended family member insists on dismissing guidance, it’s OK to sit out this year’s family gathering. It’s really sad and difficult, but we have to think about our own core values,” said Northwestern Medicine psychiatrist Dr. Aderonke Pedersonan instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “If you start from a standpoint of, ‘My number one core value is doing my part to protect my family,’ that’s the greatest gift you can give your family this holiday season.”

Pederson and Northwestern Medicine critical care physician and pulmonologist Dr. Benjamin Singer shared their perspectives on the upcoming holiday season, including what is safe and realistic this year amid the pandemic, how to navigate sensitive situations such as needing to decline an event one deems unsafe, and the need to normalize the idea of celebrating the holidays remotely. 

Have smaller, socially distanced gatherings

“Here’s the main question: Are you going to blow up your Thanksgiving dinner because Uncle Johnny won’t wear a mask?” said Singer, an assistant professor of pulmonology and critical care at Feinberg. “We’ve learned shaming people into following social distancing and mask guidelines doesn’t help, so here’s what’s reasonable: have gatherings with fewer people. If I had to give a number, I’d say 10. Nine is better than 10, and six is better than nine. If you’re around a table, you can’t eat with a mask on, so try to separate people out as much as possible.

“While it’s unusual, the safest Thanksgiving dinner may be remote, with households each having their own celebrations and connecting with others via technology.”

Reassure family you still love and care about them

“Gathering is a way to reassure each other,” Pederson said. “You spend your Thanksgiving and Christmas with the people who are most important to you. Family members need reassurance that you really do still value and care about them, because the difficulty is the fear that by isolating from them, it means you don’t care about them anymore. Bring that to the front and center of the conversation, and tell them, ‘You’re really important to me and I’m going to miss spending this holiday with you.’”

Have planning conversations ASAP

“These conversations need to happen early on before plans are set into motion or solidified,” Pederson said. “We want to put our voices into the conversation about safety measures for holiday gatherings with extended family before expectations are set. You may even tell your family about conversations you’ve had with your direct primary care physician and introduce those recommendations to your extended family.” 

‘Complete isolation is also dangerous’

“I’m not saying don’t interact with anyone,” Pederson said. “Complete isolation is also dangerous. The holiday season can be very isolating to begin with, and now we have to consider the impact of the pandemic, racial issues and the election season upon us. We are a divided nation right now. But extreme situations in which family members think COVID-19 isn’t real and is ‘fake news,’ it’s a very difficult situation and disagreements would be unavoidable. Rather than saying, ‘I’m not going to be able to celebrate at all,’ maybe consider having a Friendsgiving with people who will be consistent with your safety guidelines.”

Masks, hand washing and flu shots

“The same rules we tell people to follow in public, like masking and social distancing, also apply to visiting family members you haven’t seen in a while, because they may as well be strangers with respect to their risk of having COVID,” Singer said. “Masks are particularly effective in preventing spread to another person if you’re asymptomatic. That’s a fact whether people believe it or not. There’s a small amount of protection that masks provide for the wearer, too. There’s so much focus on COVID, that people may forget the other really important thing they can do to protect their families is getting a flu shot.”

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