As pandemic concerns and warnings rise in the health care community, so too do questions about celebrating theNovember and December holidays with family and friends.
The safest option, local experts told The World-Herald, is to celebrate in person with people who live in your immediate household, and to gather virtually with people who live outside your household via a meetup app such as Zoom, FaceTime or WhatsApp.
Experts also recommend following the guidelines set forth by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Here are other tips and information to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 during the holiday season:
WHAT IS SAFE? WHAT ISN'T?
"This is a tough question. It's better to look at it in terms of most safe to least safe. The safest thing that people can do is to stay home with their immediate household and celebrate with the people that they live with day in and day out, and connect with their family members and loved ones and friends virtually," said Dr. Jasmine Marcelin, an assistant professor in the Internal Medicine Department at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
CASES ARE RISING
Small household gatherings are a big contributing factor in the rise of COVID-19 cases, according to Dr. Jared C. Pehrson, a family medicine physician with Methodist Physicians Clinic.
"As the incidence of COVID-19 increases and there are more people walking around in the community carrying it, then it increases the likelihood that those people will start showing up at smaller gatherings, whether it be barbecues on the weekend or get-togethers for Thanksgiving or holidays," Pehrson said.
Thursday's single-day total of 2,611 new cases was the second-highest of the pandemic. For the seven-day period ending Thursday, the state tallied 14,541 new cases for an average of 2,077 new cases a day. That was an increase of 47% from the seven-day period that ended Nov. 5.
OUTDOOR GET-TOGETHERS ARE BEST
It's a commonmisunderstanding, Pehrson said, that when you're outside you don't need to socially distance or wear a mask. But that isn't true; both work together to help reduce spread.
"None of these measures alone is perfect; they all have weaknesses, but they also have significant effectiveness," Pehrson said. "When you layer one on top of the other, it does significantly reduce spread. Six feet apart might not be enough; the virus can be airborne, and we also know even droplets can go much farther than 6 feet."
Outdoor options, if weather permits, are drive-by hellos or driveway waving, Marcelin said. "But the safest thing is for people to stay home and celebrate with the people that they live with."
WHAT ABOUT INDOOR GET-TOGETHERS?
Health experts realize get-togethers are going to take place and, because of cold conditions in Nebraska this month and next, outdoor gatherings might not be possible.
"The next-safest thing would be to ensure that any sort of holiday gathering is a small one," Marcelin said. "Many families are used to having multiple households come together in one place. And that's just not safe. Think about how youmight limit the gathering to fewer than 10 individuals. Having 10 people in one room together could be problematic."
Other tips from Pehrson:
Make sure you have enough space to maintain a safe distance between all guests.
Wear masks with two or more layers. And wear them properly so that they cover the nose and mouth and have no gaps on the sides.
Ask guests to wash their hands regularly.
Make hand sanitizer freely available.
Keep windows and doors open to circulate fresh air and keep the virus in any given area low.
Put a time limit on your gathering. "The longer you're exposed to people, the higher the chance the virus can spread," Pehrson said.
DISPOSABLE DISHES, NO BUFFETS
Food is the center of a lot of holiday family gatherings. Experts recommend having everything be disposable, including dishes, utensils and napkins.
Additionally, buffet-style meals are a popular and easy option, but they're not recommended.
"Consider having the host family do the serving rather than the normal buffet-style," said Pam Menard, a counselor with the Methodist Hospital Community Counseling Program. "Have the host family wear gloves, be in the kitchen and ask people what items they want, and then just hand back the plates. Not sitting at the table and passing sides."
Menard also recommends spreading out as much as possible when eating. And, as soon as the meal is over, masks should go back on and all utensils and dishes should be thrown away.
ISOLATING BEFORE MIXING HOUSEHOLDS
If possible, Marcelin said, make an arrangement between your household and a visiting household to stay home and isolate or quarantine for as long as you can before your get-together. "That would reduce the likelihood of spread of the virus between those two households."
Another consideration is the distance people are traveling for a holiday celebration. Travel by car is safer than travel by air — not because of air quality on airplanes, but because of potentially crowded terminals and lines for tickets, boarding and baggage, Marcelin said.
'NONE OF US LIVES IN A VACUUM'
"There may be this tendency to think, 'Well, we're going to limit people who aren't in the high-risk groups. We'll have grandparents stay separate and get together with low-risk people only.' The only problem with that is we don't live in a vacuum," Pehrson said. "If we have enough of those get-togethers that are too big, the spread of the virus will increase in the community and eventually will make its way to someone who is in that higher-risk category. And none of us wants our gathering to become an inadvertent jumping point to someone who could become severely ill."
HOW TO TALK WITH FAMILY ABOUT YOUR PLANS
If you're worried about broaching the subject of holiday get-togethers, it's best to get it out in the open as soon as possible, either in person or virtually. Give everyone a chance to share their thoughts and concerns, Pehrson said.
"The big thing is doing it in a way that doesn't come across as judgmental; that doesn't shame or try to convince the other person. Ultimately, people have their own preexisting ideas on this topic, and you're not going to persuade anyone," Pehrson said. "At the end of the day, it might be a situation where people have to agree to disagree."
Getting into arguments over holiday get-togethers isn't necessary, Menard said. "Let people decide, and respect their wishes."
"This virus is already in control of the situation," Pehrson said. "You can see that reflected in the number of hospitalizations skyrocketing." The CDC's recommendations "are a way for us to gain some amount of control back from the virus."
WHAT TO DO IF YOU'RE NOT GETTING TOGETHER
People who choose to stay home might have a hard time coming up with fun ways to celebrate on their own. Disappointment and sadness are likely, especially for kids.
"The first place to start — no matter what the circumstances are — is asking the kids for their ideas. Kids are so creative," Menard said. "Say, 'We can't get together with loved ones, but what are some ways we can show them how much we love them and how much we care?' If they have an idea, you've already got some helpers right there."
Families should focus on starting new traditions at home or even virtually with outside family members, Menard said.
Have an in-home scavenger hunt where everyone gets a list of items and tries to find things in the house within a time limit.
Perform skits and puppet shows, play instruments, dance, sing or read poems.
Look at holiday lights. Families can meet in a parking lot and caravan through neighborhoods while drinking hot cocoa and listening to holiday music in the car.
Host a virtual ugly sweater contest. Make it even better by taking a screenshot of everyone and framing it.
Have a cookie exchange, though Menard said storebought cookies are safer. Either drop them off to family or mail them.
Have a movie trivia night. Ask families to watch the same movie and then have a trivia contest via Zoom.
Make gratitude cutouts. Draw holiday shapes on paper and have each person write something positive that has come out of the COVID-19 quarantine.
"We're hearing a lot about what we can't do and things we've lost. We really need to help people focus on the positive things that are happening, because there are a lot."
KEEP AN EYE ON EVERYONE'S MENTAL HEALTH
"If you're having feelings of depression, sadness, the blues … please seek help," Pehrson said. "Either from a mental health provider or, if you don't have access to one, call your primary care provider and get some assistance in finding help. Do do it sooner rather than later. Don't wait."
Outside of that, experts say, take time for self-care — deep breathing, meditation and mindfulness — and do things you enjoy.
"From a mental health standpoint, we have a lot of people doing crafts. It's scientifically proven to release endorphins. It's a great time to learn a new hobby," Menard said.
Finally, don't forget that kids are very sensitive to the attitude of adults around them.
"They will carry and mimic those same attitudes. If parents are excited, kids will get that. If parents are sitting around, grumbling and complaining, then kids are going to carry that," Menard said. "Parents have to be excited and have a positive attitude about changes we're making."
KEEP THE FAITH
"There's good news about promising study results and a vaccine. There's a new treatment that just came out for mild to moderate cases that have had significant reduction on the virus's severity," Pehrson said. "There's light at the end of the tunnel. I can't say when it's going to be over, but there's definitely lots of hope coming out."