Holiday season has arrived, and many are excited to celebrate together after avoiding in-person gatherings last year due to COVID. And while COVID is still very much present, vaccines have started to make family gatherings a safer option this year.
Of course, with more people spending time together, there is greater potential for all kinds of viruses to spread. COVID, influenza and other respiratory viruses become more prevalent in colder months as people spend more time indoors where limited air circulation makes transmission more likely.
As multiple generations come together for the holidays, the oldest and youngest members of the family may be more at risk for contracting illnesses. To keep the holidays safe and families healthy, here are some important practices to consider:
- Get the flu shot and the COVID vaccine. This is the most important and significant way to prevent or decrease the spread of these viruses. The shots also help prevent severe illness if a vaccinated person happens to contract either the flu or COVID.
- Get tested before in-person gatherings. While an increasing number of Americans are getting vaccinated, it’s still good to be cautious. For those who have been exposed to someone with COVID or the flu, or for those experiencing symptoms, it’s important to get tested for COVID before in-person gatherings. Individuals also may need to get tested before driving or flying to another state and can check the requirements of the state or country they will be visiting.
- Remember handwashing and other hygienic practices. All the public health mantras that have been frequently repeated during the COVID pandemic still apply and continue to be helpful in preventing virus transmission. Wash your hands, thoroughly and often. Avoid touching your face. Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing. Wear a mask in crowded, indoor areas.
- Feeling sick? Stay home. When people feel unwell or are experiencing any kind of cold symptoms, it’s best to stay away from others to prevent the potential spread of illness. Individuals may downplay their symptoms and assume they do not have a contagious illness, when in reality, they do. It’s best if a symptomatic individual gets tested before gathering with others to rule out COVID, the flu or other contagious illnesses. Without a confirmed negative test, stay home and away from others.
Holiday gatherings are typically centered around food, but room-temperature food can carry a risk of bacterial contamination. Even if family and friends understand and follow guidelines for safe food preparation, sometimes food dishes can sit out on counters and tables much longer than they should.
Don’t let a case of food poisoning interrupt the festivities. Here are some tips to prevent foodborne illnesses:
- Cook food thoroughly – especially meat, chicken, turkey, seafood and eggs, and use a food thermometer to ensure the internal temperatures have reached safe levels.
- Refrigerate leftovers within two hours.
- Use pasteurized eggs for dishes that contain raw eggs – including eggnog, Caesar dressing and hollandaise sauce – to prevent Salmonella.
- Thaw a turkey safely by putting it in the refrigerator, in a sink of cold water that’s changed every 30 minutes or in the microwave. Avoid letting turkey or poultry thaw on the counter.
- Keep foods separated from each other to prevent contamination – especially when it comes to meats and eggs.
Nobody wants to spend the holidays being sick. With these simple practices, families and friends can enjoy holiday celebrations safely and prepare to start a healthy new year.
James D. Grant, M.D., is senior vice president and chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.