Mask up if you're visiting the elderly or immunocompromised — but it's more important to get vaccinated, wash your hands and stay home if you're sick
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates up to 3.6 million people have already caught the flu this year. And it's not the only virus circulating; cases of RSV — a respiratory illness that can cause severe complications for infants and the elderly — are rising, while Covid still poses a threat to many.
How to handle the holiday season of gatherings, visits and parties?
“We absolutely should gather with our loved ones and sit with our grandkids on our lap. But use the tools we have to protect yourself,” Dr. Mandy K. Cohen, MD, MPH, the Director for the CDC, tells PEOPLE.
Below, more of her tips to keep your holidays merry and bright.
What is the No. 1 thing people should do to stay healthy this season?
“First and foremost, we want folks to get vaccinated. We're still at the beginning of flu season right now,” Dr. Cohen tells PEOPLE, adding “RSV is already in full swing across the country. So we are seeing more kiddos with RSV and in the hospital, but vaccines can still prevent the worst of what these viruses can bring.”
As for Covid, she explains, “The Covid virus has changed and you want the most updated protection to match the changes in the virus. Second, even if you've had Covid before or been vaccinated before, your protection decreases over time. And then the third reason is we're still seeing a lot of folks get long Covid.”
How can you avoid picking up germs on an airplane?
“Think ahead and do vaccines. Vaccines are still the strongest way that you can protect yourself from the worst of what these viruses bring. If you do end up getting Covid or the flu, it'll be much more mild.”
What’s the biggest mistake people make when it comes to staying healthy?
“Not staying home when you're sick. It's really hard to miss fun family gatherings, I know. But if you're not feeling well, it’s really important to test yourself so you can find out what you have,” Dr. Cohen tells PEOPLE, adding that you can get free Covid tests from the government. “We have treatments for COVID and for flu — treatments that could save your life.”
How important is masking this holiday season?
“Masks do work,” Dr. Cohen said, pointing out that they’re especially important if “you're going to visit grandparents [or] if you're going to visit someone getting cancer treatment. You want to be masking as another layer of precaution to make sure you're not bringing a virus to to whoever you're visiting.”
However, masking can also protect you, she pointed out. “Masks can protect you against the circulating viruses if you want to wear well-fitting masks.”
Apart from vaccination, what else should people do to stay healthy?
“If you're on the move and you're traveling and you're in places where there's a lot of folks, [it’s] always good to [use] hand sanitizer — that helps you with not just things like Covid and the flu but the regular cold virus and whatever other things might be circulating out here. And obviously, wash your hands."
Overall, Dr. Cohen emphasized that taking multiple preventative measures was the best bet for avoiding illness. ”It's really layers,” she tells PEOPLE. “Washing your hands, wearing a mask, opening up that window [for ventilation]. You know, doing the things that we know can protect ourselves and each other.”
What should you do if you do get sick?
“If you do get sick, remember to get tested, and you could get treatment,” Dr. Cohen tells PEOPLE. “Treatment could save grandma's life as well.”
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