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Health experts insist it's safe to gather for the holidays if you take precautions

Tips for keeping everyone safe from COVID-19 this holiday season
Posted at 6:22 PM, Dec 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-21 00:41:42-05

DENVER — Millions of Americans are getting ready to head over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for the holidays. Health experts say even with the omicron variant, it is safe to gather for the holidays if you take the proper safety precautions.

However, more breakthrough COVID-19 cases are being reported in the U.S., including U.S. Congressman Jason Crow, who tested positive for the virus even after being vaccinated and boosted.

“I’m feeling okay, just very mild cold-like symptoms, which tells me how important it was that I got the vaccination and the booster,” Crow said. “Undoubtedly, had I not been vaccinated and boosted, I’d be in a much different situation than I am right now.”

Crow took a rapid at-home COVID-19 test after returning from an international trip and tested positive for the virus. He’s now quarantining with mild symptoms.

With the number of reported breakthrough COVID-19 cases increasing, Denver7 spoke to health experts about what to expect this holiday season.

How are your hospitalizations right now, and who are you seeing most frequently?

“I think we're probably very similar to a lot of places in the country," said Dr. Eric Lung, chief medical officer for Skyridge Medical Center. "Yes, we do have COVID patients. We are not nearly at the peak that we were last year, but we have been very busy.”

The vast majority of the patients they are treating are unvaccinated, according to Lung. The number of patients has remained steady in recent weeks, but is a bit lower than what they were in October.

Meanwhile, over at UCHealth, Dr. Michelle Barron says they have seen some decreases in hospitalizations. She’s hoping the trend will continue over the holidays. Roughly 85% to 90% of the patients in the hospital are unvaccinated, according to Barron.

What should I know about gathering with my family for the holidays?

Gathering for the holidays should be safe as long as certain safety precautions are taken, like getting vaccinated, washing your hands, wearing a mask in public and social distancing when possible. Health experts say booster shots and testing can add an important layer of protection for families.

Barron says planning is an important part of holiday gatherings, particularly for people who are planning on traveling. Officials say travelers should look up the local guidelines ahead of time, as well as check with venues or restaurants you are planning on visiting on their protocols.

“I think you want to, obviously, look at yourself," Barron said. "What happens if you get diagnosed with COVID and you now have to stay away? What is that plan? Especially if you're staying with family members, where are you going to stay if one of them got sick or you got sick? And then on the flip side, is there a risk to the family members that you're seeing?"

Barron also warns if you are experiencing any symptoms, even if it’s just a runny nose or sore throat, it’s important to get tested before family gatherings and to not attend if you are not feeling well.

I’m hearing about more breakthrough cases. Is getting COVID-19 inevitable at this point?

Barron does not believe contracting COVID-19 is inevitable, even with the breakthrough cases. However, that doesn’t mean that being vaccinated or boosted makes you immune to the virus either.

“I think, you know, that it may be a misconception to say, for the public to think that as if you get your booster, or if you get your, your vaccine, that there's no way you're going to get it, and that's not the case,” Lung said.

Lung does not feel the same way when it comes to those who are unvaccinated.

“I think if you're unvaccinated, I think you're just waiting for your time to come,” he said.

Lung is still imploring people to get the vaccine, and if you have questions or uncertainties, to talk to a health expert.

Barron, meanwhile, says she understands why people would be frustrated to hear that even if they do everything right, they can still contract COVID-19.

“I can totally understand how that would be very disappointing," she said. "But guess what? You don't feel that bad. Most of the people that have broke through are usually asymptomatic or have really mild symptoms. Consider that your like immune system working from the vaccine."

Barron compares the vaccines to an airbag or a seat belt, saying they may not prevent you from getting in a car wreck, but they can save your life.

Finally, Lung says he normally encourages people to avoid talking about politics over the holidays. However, he says he now encourage families to discuss vaccines with their unvaccinated relatives to try to encourage them to protect themselves.

“I would talk about it, I would encourage it anyway, " he said. "And I think that it may cause debate, and it may cause a lot of people to be angry. You can talk things through, but people are going to be vulnerable, and people coming to the ... Christmas dinner are, are going to be at-risk if they're unvaccinated, for sure.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also provided the following guidance with recommendations for the holiday season:

  • Plan a gathering where everyone over the age of 5 has been vaccinated. 
  • Stay home if you are displaying symptoms of COVID-19, are positive for COVID-19 or have had recent close contact with someone with COVID-19. 
  • Wear a mask and practice physical distancing while shopping. If you can, use curbside pick up for groceries.
  • Plan your shopping list so you can get everything done in a single trip. Going in a single trip not only saves you precious time, but it also helps the environment and decreases your exposure to COVID-19.
  • Ask your guests to test for COVID-19 before the gathering. There are free community testing sites all across Colorado. 
  • Consider hosting a smaller, shorter outdoor gathering. Outdoor events are generally safer than indoor events, smaller groups are generally safer than larger groups and shorter gatherings are generally safer than longer gatherings.
  • Keep a list of guests and their contact information so they can be notified quickly in the event of a COVID-19 exposure.
  • If gathering indoors, improve ventilation by opening windows and doors if it’s safe to do so or running your heat, AC or an air purifier.