[Originally published: Nov. 22, 2021. Updated: Dec. 6, 2021.]
Note: Information in this article was accurate at the time of original publication. Because information about COVID-19 changes rapidly, we encourage you to visit the websites of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and your state and local government for the latest information.
Last year, holiday planning was mostly an exercise in complicated logistics—and frustration. This season, however, the situation is much better, thanks to the availability of COVID-19 vaccines.
“As compared to the holiday season last year, we are in a safer place with more adults being vaccinated and boosted and children being vaccinated as well,” says Jaimie Meyer, MD, MS, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases expert. “That means that if you and your family are fully vaccinated and boosted, your holiday can look a lot more like the ‘pre-pandemic celebrations.”
Still, case rates are on the rise again globally and there is uncertainty about the clinical implications of the Omicron variant. With that in mind, there are COVID-19 precautions you can take to ensure any gathering you attend or host is safer this holiday season.
We talked with Dr. Meyer and Yale Medicine public and mental health experts. They discussed these precautions, travel safety, and the social etiquette of discussing vaccination status.
Vaccination is key for holiday celebrations
The most important step to protect ourselves for the holidays is to get vaccinated, says Saad Omer, MBBS, PhD, MPH, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health.
“That means everyone 5 and older should get vaccinated. All adults who have already received their vaccines should get boosters,” says Dr. Omer.
It’s also important to note, with the timing of various holidays in December, that children between ages 5 and 11 who receive a COVID-19 vaccine won’t be fully protected until two weeks following their second dose (which is 21 days after the first).
“Still, even if a child just received one shot prior to Christmas, it is better than no shots, and there is some level of protection—even with a first dose,” Dr. Meyer says.
Additional precautionary steps you can take
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those who are not fully vaccinated should wear a well-fitting mask when in public indoor settings. Even those who are fully vaccinated should wear a mask in similar settings, if they are in a community with substantial-to-high transmission.
But, says Nathan Grubaugh, PhD, a Yale School of Public Health epidemiologist, much of the advice surrounding the holidays this year involves making smart choices.
“Obviously, families are going to get together. If some family members aren’t vaccinated, we can encourage them to take rapid tests and to wear masks as much as possible," he says.
Even if all attendees are vaccinated, some people may still feel more comfortable with extra layers of protection.
“If you are visiting relatives in a warmer climate, you can gather outdoors,” Dr. Omer says. “And for those who live in colder climates where outdoor celebrations are impractical, you may want to keep gatherings on the smaller side. It can be more than just a few people, but you wouldn’t want to throw a party for 50 people—unless you know that everyone is vaccinated.”
Another idea is having guests take rapid antigen COVID-19 tests before an event, Dr. Omer says. Such a test, which could even be taken at home, could be done the morning of the event—or even right before it—as the results come back in a matter of minutes.
Yet another safety measure for indoor gatherings is to get a portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter, Dr. Omer suggests. Such a machine can remove viral particles from the air, but it’s important to make sure the machine’s clean air delivery rate matches the room size. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an online guide on air cleaners in the home that explains how to do this in detail.
Is it safe to travel?
Because of concerns about Omicron, the CDC updated its international travel guidelines, requiring negative COVID-19 tests for all travelers within one day of coming into the country, including those who are vaccinated. Details can be found here.
The CDC still recommends delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated. Everyone, including those who are fully vaccinated, is required to wear a mask on public transportation and follow international travel recommendations. Additional tips can be found on the CDC’s Travel page.
Asking about vaccination status
Broaching the topic of vaccination status with some family and friends may seem daunting, but it all comes down to proper communication, says David Klemanski, PsyD, MPH, director of the Psychological Assessment Service at Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital.
“Once you figure out the priorities for your family, you need to communicate that to others. If vaccination is important to you, you want to include that in the invitation,” Klemanski says. “It may feel personal to ask people about their vaccination status, but it’s fair to ask and to talk about other safety precautions you would like your guests to take.”
You can frame the vaccine issue as a description of how you feel, including that you are excited to see everyone, but that you want all to be safe, Klemanski adds. “That may help take the sting out of it,” he says.
For those who are hoping they can persuade friends or family members to get vaccinated, that can be trickier, Klemanski adds.
“Depending on your history with the person, you may want to leave that topic alone, especially at this point in the pandemic. If they aren’t vaccinated, there is likely a strong reason why,” he says. “If the intent is to change their mind, that might not work. But if you are looking to listen and understand, that is different.”
Dr. Meyer says a friend of hers recently sent out a holiday invite explicitly stating that proof of vaccination is required.
“I think it’s best to be clear about what you want, what your expectations are, and that they are not movable. You might alienate some people, so it’s important that you’re comfortable with that outcome,” she says.
If vaccination is something certain friends or family members aren’t willing to do, one option is to put off gathering, especially in the winter months if you live in a colder climate.
“Maybe the time to get together would be the Fourth of July or Labor Day, when you can grill outside,” Dr. Omer says.
But for those who are vaccinated? “You can have fun over the holidays and celebrate safely,” says Dr. Omer.
Note: Information provided in Yale Medicine articles is for general informational purposes only. No content in the articles should ever be used as a substitute for medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician. Always seek the individual advice of your health care provider with any questions you have regarding a medical condition.