Federal health officials have released updated COVID-19 safety guidelines for holiday celebrations in 2021.
Guidelines call for guests to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 if possible, including newly eligible children between the age of 5 and 11.
Some Americans will also need to wear masks at holiday parties, regardless of vaccination status. Officials say this can be avoided if events are hosted outside.
Travel is being discouraged if you are unable to receive a full vaccination at least two weeks prior, and federal officials have special rules for those who choose to travel while unvaccinated.
Hosting a holiday party in 2020 was considered extremely risky for those that had hoped to invite family and friends living outside of their homes. While around 59% of eligible Americans are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, top health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are stressing that more will need to sign up for a full vaccine to keep loved ones as safe as possible during the holiday season.
Risks associated with parties and events aren't new, but they're driven in large part by the viral Delta strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to a COVID-19 diagnosis. While mostly mild in nature, risk of a breakthrough case is higher than ever, as CDC officials have previously indicated that the case counts in spring were largely underreported. Plus, other variants could pose a greater threat during the cold winter season.
Holiday guidance issued by CDC officials stress the need for vaccines and mask-wearing, especially for those who are unable to receive a shot due to their medical history — namely, young children and elderly individuals. Holiday events, including Thanksgiving dinner, Hanukkah celebrations and Christmas gift exchanges (plus all the travel around these traditions) are still considered risky because they're multi-generational in nature. Adding unvaccinated guests into the mix can complicate the issue, experts say.
Per new guidance, those who are best suited to wear a well-fitted mask at indoor holiday events include:
Younger children who may not be able to receive full vaccinations in time for the holiday season, despite recent federal clearance.
Elderly guests who may be considered immunocompromised but unable to complete vaccination and those who face pre-existing conditions that put them at high risk for severe sickness.
Those living in a town or city where local COVID-19 transmission is trending high, as asytompatic spread (or those who are sick without any symptoms) is still a concern.
Yes. Children ages 5–11 years receive one-third of the adult dose. The Pfizer-BioNTech #COVID19 vaccine is more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 illness in children ages 5–11 years. https://t.co/oV6NgGGUSb pic.twitter.com/fg82O4uikl
— CDC (@CDCgov) November 16, 2021
If you can guarantee that everyone on your holiday guest list is vaccinated (and have received a new booster or third dose if advised to) then the COVID-19 risk factor is largely reduced, especially if you're able to host family outside, where risks are considerably lower.
Stay outdoors and keep masks optional in private settings
In general, outdoor activities are safer for those who are inviting family, friends and other guests who live outside of their home over for the holidays. For Thanksgiving, enjoying a shared meal outside (and any social activities like a cocktail hour or parade viewing!) will allow you to largely avoid masks altogether.
Current CDC guidelines indicate that masks can be skipped while meeting outside in uncrowded spaces. If you're participating in a public event where crowds may congregate, or if the COVID-19 infection rate is high in your area, both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals can greatly reduce the mild uptick in risk while outside by masking up.
Inside, masks may be necessary for all guests
While the latest CDC guidance doesn't include an official tip regarding window fans, the reason that news outlets covered earlier advice is that experts have long established that poor airflow can greatly increase COVID-19 risk. Since SARS-CoV-2 is airborne, airflow that is stale or non-moving can prove dangerous for any crowd in your home. It's why outside events are safer and why opening your windows or working on ventilation inside is a smart idea for any holiday event.
Even with optimal indoor ventilation, masks may still need to be part of your holiday traditions this year, depending on your guest list. CDC officials indicate that masks are still required for vaccinated individuals with pre-existing conditions taking medications that may weaken their immune system; it stands to reason that your other guests and family members will also need to mask up to protect such a guest. Officials made a special note about the need for masks in this case:
You might choose to wear a mask regardless of the level of transmission if a member of your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease or is unvaccinated.
Consider a new way of traveling
While masks are required on all forms of public transportation, those who are ineligible to receive a vaccine at this time — particularly children under 12 — should do their best to stay off planes, trains, buses and ferries. Your family should consider embarking on a potentially longer road trip if all members can't be fully vaccinated ahead of time, especially if you'll be visiting another household that houses at-risk individuals.
At this time, CDC guidance for the holiday season indicated that frequent COVID-19 testing can help reduce the risk of becoming infected, even if testing mandates are not largely required by many states. You'll find a full list of COVID-19 testing requirements by state published by AARP here.
Get a #COVID19 vaccine so you and your loved ones can stay safe on your trip!
Whether you’re flying, driving, or sailing, CDC recommends delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Learn more: https://t.co/mUsXpabnGi. pic.twitter.com/ypmqwxxU2u
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 2, 2021
CDC officers maintain a separate, official checklist for unvaccinated individuals for both domestic travel as well as international travel, which includes multiple rounds of testing prior to and after arriving at your destination.
Regardless of vaccination status, the final piece of planning holiday celebrations this year largely revolves around testing — and creating plans for quarantines in the event that you do test positive for COVID-19. You'll find a full list of travel criteria (as well as info for certain international destinations) via the CDC's travel guide here.
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