The holidays are approaching and, once again, the pandemic will impact how we gather with family and friends. What can you do to protect yourself and your family and keep the coronavirus from upending your holiday plans? And, if you do get sick, how can you tell if it’s COVID-19 or the flu?
Charles A. Augustus II, M.D., chief medical officer of Homestead Hospital, part of Baptist Health South Florida, says now is not the time to let your guard down with COVID-19. “Be careful and stay vigilant,” he advises. “Although the surge South Florida experienced this summer from the Delta Variant has subsided, the coronavirus is still very much a threat here and in cities across the country.”
Dr. Augustus emphasizes the importance of being vaccinated. “Over the summer here at Homestead Hospital and at hospitals around the country, COVID-19 patient counts soared,” he says. The vast majority of those patients were unvaccinated, he points out. “That tells me the vaccine is working exactly as intended – it’s keeping people out of the hospital and it’s saving lives.”
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses several weeks apart, and a person isn’t considered to be fully vaccinated until two weeks after their second shot. “That means you would need to have your first dose by early November if you want to be fully vaccinated by Christmas,” says Dr. Augustus. While it may be too late for Thanksgiving, a first dose would at least provide some protection, he says.
Dr. Augustus adds that colder weather in many regions, which brings more people together indoors, along with an increase in people traveling and gathering for the holidays, could likely spark another COVID-19 surge. “Add to that an active cold and flu season and you could have a lot of people feeling sick over the holidays,” he says.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) says that COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have now surpassed 711,000, and that more than 44 million Americans have already been infected with the virus. The CDC also reports that over 65 percent of U.S. adults have had at least one dose of the vaccine and more than half (56.4 percent) are now fully vaccinated.
Staying safe on the go
Community transmission remains high in every state across the country, according to CDC data, and unless you’re fully vaccinated, you’re advised to postpone your travel.
If you must travel, however, Dr. Augustus urges you to closely monitor transmission rates wherever you’re going, and follow CDC guidelines to protect yourself and others from the coronavirus. “Get tested with a viral test one to three days before your trip to make sure you don’t currently have COVID-19,” he says.
While you’re traveling, be sure to wear a mask, Dr. Augustus says. “Not only do they work, they’re required in airports and other transportation hubs as well as on airlines, trains and other public transportation.”
The CDC also recommends staying at least six feet from anyone who isn’t traveling with you. “Maintaining physical distance from others isn’t easy, especially on a packed pre-Thanksgiving flight,” Dr. Augustus acknowledges, but he recommends you do what you can to avoid large crowds, and maintain social distancing as much as possible. “And remember to wash your hands frequently or use hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol.”
After you travel, the CDC recommends getting a viral test three to five days after travel and staying home and self-quarantining for a full seven days. The CDC’s travel guidance goes on to state:
• Even if you test negative, stay home and self-quarantine for the full 7 days.
• If your test is positive, isolate yourself to protect others from getting infected.
• If you don’t get tested, stay home and self-quarantine for 10 days after travel.
• Avoid being around people who are at increased risk for severe illness for 14 days, whether you get tested or not.
• Self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms; isolate and get tested if you develop symptoms.
• Follow all state and local recommendations or requirements.
Is it safe to celebrate?
Dr. Augustus says he gets questions from many people wanting to know how to protect family members from COVID-19 when they have other health issues or are taking medications that weaken their immune system. That’s especially true during the holidays, when many people gather and celebrate with their families.
“Getting the vaccine for yourself and your family is the first step, of course” says Dr. Augustus. However, he cautions, even those who are fully vaccinated may not be protected if they have existing health conditions that put them at increased risk for serious illness. “If that’s the case in your family, as it is for many families, I advise taking extra precautions when getting together for the holidays, or at any time.”
These, Dr. Augustus says, might include wearing a mask at home when around those at high risk, gathering outside if the weather allows, maintaining social distancing, and taking other commonsense steps. “If you have to gather indoors, it’s best to choose a well-ventilated room where you can open some windows or doors.”
Dr. Augustus says many parents are also worried about how to protect their little ones, for whom the COVID-19 vaccines are not yet available. Mothers who have been vaccinated pass those antibodies on to their child when nursing, he says, but extra care must still be taken to avoid exposure.
“If your child is younger than two or can’t yet wear a mask, limit visits with people who aren’t vaccinated,” Dr. Augustus recommends. “And when you’re out in public, keep some distance between your child and other people, if possible.”
Is it COVID-19 or the flu?
Because the coronavirus pandemic has persisted into yet another cold and flu season, Dr. Augustus says, a lot of people get alarmed at their first sniffle or sore throat, wondering if it may be COVID-19. “There are a lot of overlapping symptoms, and a viral test is the only way to confirm if you have actually have COVID-19,” he says.
With proper precautions and some advance planning, Dr. Augustus says that people can safely enjoy the holidays with family and friends. “The holidays are a special time for many people and we don’t want you to feel like you have to put a damper on your festivities,” he says. “Be smart, stay safe and have fun.”
Some symptoms, however, are unique to the coronavirus and not typically associated with colds or flu. According to Dr. Augustus, these may include vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, shortness of breath or a new loss of sense of taste or smell.
“If you experience any of these symptoms in conjunction with the other symptoms more typical of the flu such as fever, congestion, body aches and fatigue, then call your doctor and seek care as soon as possible,” advises Dr. Augustus.