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Avoid large gatherings —especially those outside households — during holiday season, say Virginia Tech experts

13-Nov-2020 8:55 AM EST, by Virginia Tech

Thinking of traveling and gathering with others outside your household for Thanksgiving? Think again, say these Virginia Tech researchers with a wide range of expertise.

See below for tips from an epidemiologist, disease biostatistician, and psychologist who studies safety.

Ron Fricker, expert in statistical methods for use in disease surveillance:

“Nationwide, the number of cases have reached a new high and are continuing upwards. Hospitalizations have dramatically increased in parts of the country and the national death rate looks to have reversed from a slow decline back to increasing again. By all indications, this fall is going to be tough — just like the public health experts predicted.”

“However, what we have learned in the past eight months with this virus is that masks and social distancing work. Some may dispute this, but the science is becoming clearer by the day. But we have also learned that, because of airborne transmission, being indoors and in congregate eating situations can lead to significant virus spread.”

“To me, all this says that traditional Thanksgiving celebrations with extended families coming together have the potential to cause substantial harm.”

“Personally, we will be celebrating together in my immediate family – our ‘pod’ – but only virtually with the extended family. This will make for an unusual holiday but also one that is as safe as possible. But being safe doesn’t mean foregoing time with the extended family. We will be calling everyone on Thanksgiving day. I may watch a football game with my mom via Zoom or Facetime. We will probably visit other relatives before Thanksgiving and, when we do, we will all wear masks and keep an appropriate distance.”

“While this sounds almost anti-Thanksgiving, years from now we want to be able to look back on this holiday season and be thankful that everyone stayed safe and healthy.”

E. Scott Geller, expert in the psychology of safety, including behavior-focused interventions to improve human welfare and life satisfaction:

“My advice is quite simple: connect on Zoom beyond your immediate family. Stop listening to the uninformed politicians and follow the advice of science. If we had done that months ago, and had a president who set the right healthy example, we would not be the industrialized country with the worst COVID-19 prevention record.”

“But compliance is difficult with the mixed messages being shared. Most people will follow the advice with the least discomfort and inconvenience. And with a president who claims COVID-19 is no big deal, noncompliance for COVID-19 prevention should be expected. People naturally believe ‘it won’t happen to me,’ and thus they take risks, especially when those who should be leaders of our country set the wrong example.”

Charlotte Baker, expert in epidemiology: 

“We're social people and this is a pretty social holiday. So in short: yes, safely get together with the people you live with or people who you might not live with but you consider to be your ‘pod.’ That might be next door neighbors or family from a low-risk area who have been being very cautious just like you. If they — or you — are coming from a high risk area or if you know they do not regularly take precautions against COVID-19, it's best to share a meal over video chat instead.”

“Remember that this is not only COVID year, but flu and cold season as well. That means all precautions on deck. Isolate for a couple weeks prior to getting together: no going out to eat, no hanging out with other people not in your pod, get a test if you think you might have been exposed, keep up the handwashing/hand sanitizing routine, and clean your masks. Plan ahead for the meal. Use grocery pickup or delivery to limit the times you have to go into a store. If you're using a food bank to get some of your supplies, be sure to follow any social distancing and pickup rules. Limit the number of people getting together. If you normally have 3-5 families getting together, try no more than 2. You still want gatherings of less than 10-12 people and want to spend as much time outdoors or with windows open as possible unless you already live in the same house together. Might be a great time to practice your s'mores making skills! Remember to check a COVID dashboard to see what the risk of getting COVID is in your area. If it is high, don't host. If it is low to medium, keep the group small. Don't forget normal things like taking medications, avoiding slick floors, or other things that might get you a trip to the ER even in a normal year. If you normally can't wait for Black Friday shopping, be aware: most stores aren't having events this year and social distancing is likely not to exist in places that do. That's prime time for passing all the germs so be careful.”

“If you realize you shouldn't get together with anyone else, including for health reasons, don't force it. It can be really hard being alone for a holiday or just with the people you live with, especially this year. It doesn't mean you have to actually be alone or feel like something is different. Volunteer to drop off food to a neighbor who is alone for the holiday. Ask a mental health counselor if they have suggestions that work for your situation. There are a number of video chat services available that let you talk to several people at a time and help you get ‘together’ with friends and family. They even let you simultaneously watch a TV show or movie together no matter where you are. Everyone might have been looking forward to the relief of the holiday, but use it as a time to create a new tradition or an alternate of an old one. Who knows what you might start!”

“Whether you get together with others or don't, remember that foodborne illnesses are a common holiday issue we still must look out for. Cook the turkey correctly if that's what you're eating, and remember the Butterball really will answer the phone to help you out if you find yourself doing it for the first time!” 

About the experts

Ron Fricker is a professor of statistics at Virginia Tech with research focused on the performance of various statistical methods for use in disease surveillance, and statistical process control methodologies more generally. He is the co-author of "Monitoring the Health of Populations by Tracking Disease Outbreaks: Saving Humanity from the Next Plague,” which was published earlier in 2020. View his bio.

E. Scott Geller is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of psychology and Director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems at Virginia Tech. Throughout five decades of teaching and research at the university, Geller has focused in part on the psychology of safety as well as his global movement, Actively Caring for People. Among other subjects, his work focuses on the development and evaluation of behavior change strategies to improve quality of life on a large scale. View his bio.

Charlotte Baker is an assistant professor of epidemiology in the Department of Population Health Sciences at the Virginia–Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, located at Virginia Tech. Her research focuses include sports and recreation injury prevention and control; physical activity; blood disorders; and health disparities and health equity. View her bio.

And while these experts advise against gathering in large non-household groups for Thanksgiving and the holidays, researcher Mahmood Khan, who studies travel, offers tips for those who do decide travel is best for them.

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