Editor's Note: The information published in this story is accurate at the time of publication. Always refer to uab.edu/uabunited for UAB's current guidelines and recommendations relating to COVID-19.
Thanksgiving usually kicks off a holiday season full of travel for college students, young adults, families and others visiting loved ones. With folks traveling from different cities, states and regions and then merging into a shared home environment with others, there is certainly room for concern that COVID-19 could spread quickly and widely this winter.
But how can people traveling and those opening their homes to family stay safe? Should people rethink visiting family altogether, or are there ways to mitigate virus spread?
“The pandemic has been stressful for families and loved ones, and as the holidays approach, we all want to have some normalcy in our lives,” empathized Rachael Lee, M.D., assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. “Unfortunately, as cases are increasing in the community, small gatherings with multiple families indoors can also increase the risk of spread of COVID-19. People need to be incredibly thoughtful about how they approach seeing others.”
Quarantining prior to being with others
Bertha Hidalgo, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology in the UAB School of Public Health, stresses that the first thing she recommends is for people to quarantine for 10 to 14 days with no exposures prior to being with others. While this could be a challenge for many, added mindfulness will help protect the traveler and, in turn, those with whom they plan to be in close contact.
“Ideally, you want people to quarantine 14 days prior to the get-together. I suggest trying to quarantine before traveling home, practicing heightened safety measures like masking, handwashing and social distancing as best as possible during travel, and/or a quarantining at the final destination,” Hidalgo said.
Lee echoes Hidalgo’s recommendation to limit socialization and interaction in the days leading up to visiting others. Social isolation and vigilant masking, handwashing and distancing from others will protect your immediate health and the health of those who will interact with you. It will also provide added peace of mind that your responsible actions will allow for a favorable holiday experience around others, Lee says.
Testing before travel
Many people think that getting tested for COVID-19 before traveling is a sure-fire way to know their health status. While testing to know your status could be useful, UAB experts warn that it does not eliminate all risk.
“A lot of people think that they can just get tested and then go home and they’re safe. Remember, a negative test — even if it’s a PCR test, which is the most sensitive test we have — only tells you at that very moment that you are not infectious; you can still be infected and not turn PCR-positive for up to two days,” cautioned Jeanne Marrazzo, M.D., director of UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases. “So, if you get a test and you are negative, know that it does not give you a passport to be sure that you are not going to pass the virus to anyone else. It is reassuring, no doubt; but it is not definitive and certainly isn’t something right now that can take you out of quarantine or give you total peace of mind.”
Lee adds that, if you are asymptomatic, it is not recommended to get a rapid (antigen) test because of the potential for a false positive. If you do have a credible exposure and feel that it is best to be tested, contact your primary health care provider or Student/Employee health to determine the best steps for your situation.
Mindfulness when together
Once you are with family members under one roof, there are critical measures that need to be taken to minimize the potential for virus spread.
Lee, Marrazzo and Hidalgo all agree on the following recommendations:
- Wear masks indoors if separation is not possible. The greatest risk is if you are indoors within 6 feet of others for more than 15 minutes.
- If indoors around others, open windows or provide ways to increase as much ventilation as possible.
- If people must gather, do so outdoors. If you are able to, plan to eat, drink or socialize outside with ample space from those who are not a part of your immediate household. That is the safest route.
- If indoors, reconsider meals or situations where you need to take your mask off around others.
- Wear masks, wash hands and socially distance frequently and diligently.
“We know that this feels counterintuitive to the way we have always spent time with our families, including how we interact around our parents, siblings and loved ones,” Marrazzo said. “But it’s key to remember that we have no sure way to know that we aren’t transmitting the virus back and forth with others. The biggest sign of respect and love that we can show is to be mindful of our actions leading up to time with others, during our visit and when we return home.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with these symptoms and criteria listed below should not travel for the holidays or find themselves in a close-quartered setting, such as staying in a home with others who could be at risk. This includes people who:
- Have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and have not met the criteria for when it is safe to be around others.
- Have symptoms of COVID-19.
- Are waiting for COVID-19 viral test results.
- May have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the last 14 days.
- Are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.