Skip to main content

Hospitals can’t handle fallout from in-person holiday gatherings

Last week marked the highest death rate since start of COVID-19 pandemic

holidays covid safety

With one major holiday down and several more to come, Northwestern Medicine pulmonologist and critical care physician Dr. John Coleman’s message is simple: Stay home and don’t inundate our already taxed health care systems. 

“Over the last week we have seen the number of hospitalized patients break the 100,000 mark and hit the highest death rate since the start of the pandemic,” said Coleman, an associate professor of medicine (pulmonary and critical care) and neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “These record-breaking numbers do not yet reflect any travel over the Thanksgiving holiday, and we are at high risk of reaching the capacity of what health systems can handle.”

COVID-19 and holiday travel 

“This year has been extremely challenging for everyone, and spending time with family at the holidays is a treasured memory. Unfortunately, in 2020 this comes with high risk, both to those traveling and their loved ones. Every effort should be made to abstain from travel during the holiday season, with the increasing numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. It is assumed if you travel during the holiday season, you are going to be exposed to someone with COVID-19. If people feel they MUST travel and see family, the CDC recently amended its guidelines to increase better adherence. Following the CDC’s recently updated recommendation of testing before and after travel can REDUCE the risk of spreading COVID-19, but it DOES NOT eliminate all risk. The goal is to mitigate risk to the general population. Obviously, abstaining from travel and celebrations with people outside your household is the safest option.  

“If a person does travel around the holidays, they should quarantine at home and get tested five to seven days after returning. While awaiting testing results, they should remain in quarantine.”

Where do we stand in terms of the accuracy of rapid tests? 

“No test is 100% accurate, and there is a lot of variability in testing. Testing is dependent on obtaining a proper sample (nasal or nasal-pharyngeal), the timing of testing and the level of viral shedding. The two main types of tests are molecular tests (PCR testing) and antigen tests (rapid testing). Rapid tests detect one or more specific proteins from a virus particle. Antigen tests tend to be highly specific but are typically less sensitive than molecular tests. A highly specific test will generally have a low false positive rate (COVID+ when patient does not have COVID) but will run a risk of false negatives (COVID- even when the patient does have infection).”

Is it safe to consume homemade foods from well-meaning friends and family this holiday season? 

“COVID-19 is transmitted through large respiratory particles, small droplets and aerosols. While there was early talk about transmission on surfaces and packages, we now know it is primarily transmitted from close contact to infected people and transmission of respiratory particles. Over the last nine months, we have learned it is safe to eat food prepared by someone else (family, restaurants) if delivered to your home and consumed only with those who live in your home. The risk comes when you are eating this food with others outside of your home, because there is increased risk for transmission of respiratory particles.”

If you do travel, is it safe to use the bathroom on the airplane?

“The same practices of using a public restroom will also apply when using the bathroom on an airplane. Wear your mask, limit touching surfaces and make sure to thoroughly wash your hands after using the washroom and again when you return to your seat.”

Back to top