Oct. 29, 2021 -- We're in a better place this year for enjoying the holidays safely compared to a year ago. Trick-or-treating is a go this weekend, international friends and family can visit the U.S. again staring Nov. 8, and the widespread adoption of COVID-19 precautions and protections, especially vaccines, increases the likelihood for safe gatherings, said Henry Wu, MD.
"I can't believe it's been a year since I last talked about this. Even more, I'm really amazed at how much better shape we are in right now," Wu said during a Thursday media briefing sponsored by the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "We've learned so much in the past year about COVID-19 and how it spreads."
"I do see a visible path towards a safe holiday [season], one that we can enjoy while minimizing the risks of COVID-19 to ourselves and our families," said Wu, director of the Emory TravelWell Center.
Release the Ghosts and Goblins
"So I wouldn't worry much about the treats your children get. Just make sure their hands are clean," Wu said.
The same hand hygiene goes for people handing out treats to trick-or-treaters, too.
Another positive factor is that trick-or-treating is a pretty much an outdoor event. And outdoor events that are not packed or crowded tend to be safer than other types of get-togethers, Wu said.
"Going door to door for trick-or-treating is certainly a safe activity," he said.
In announcements earlier this month, both Anthony Fauci, MD, and Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, agreed. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stated that trick-or-treating is safe this Halloween.
The CDC recently updated its guidelines for safer holidays during COVID-19 on Oct. 15, and on Oct. 25, Walensky encouraged children to put on their costumes, stay outside, and enjoy trick-or-treating this year.
Also, for people handing out candy, consider protective measures. For example, Wu said, "you can reassure your trick-or-treaters by wearing masks that you have their safety in mind."
Some potentially riskier traditions will have to wait. For example, "hygiene is definitely important. Of course, I'm not sure how many people still bob for apples, but I think even before the pandemic, I would not have been too quick to participate in that."
Layer Up Clothes and Protections
Keep the basics in mind to limit exposure to coronavirus, and the more protections, the merrier.
"Remember, you can augment your protections using all the basic preventive measures that we're all familiar with, like masking when in high-risk situations and avoiding crowded indoor areas," Wu said.
"Just like layering up our clothes in cold weather, you can layer up your protections against COVID."
Also, because breakthrough infections are possible among the vaccinated, consider masking if a friend or family member is immunocompromised or has a higher risk condition, Wu said. As an added precaution, everyone getting together can agree to get tested beforehand.
"I really do think it's important to see your family, particularly the frail ones who have not been able to get out," Wu added. "So I would just encourage folks to enjoy themselves, but to take advantage of as many layers as they can."
If you are planning to travel for the holidays, Wu recommended getting vaccinated if you are eligible. Also, research the COVID-19 requirements at home and where you’re going in advance.
"Note that if you are an unvaccinated, you will need to get tested before and after your trip," Wu said.
Testing is also required for American travelers returning to the U.S., vaccinated or not.
Also, starting Nov. 8, the U.S. government plans to allow international visitors to enter the country if they are vaccinated.
"This is an exciting time because so many of us have family and friends who've been unable to visit us," Wu said. "Let's be good hosts and let's welcome our visitors by getting vaccinated."
Thankful for Vaccines
And speaking of being a good host, if you are planning a holiday party or get-together, "plan your events so that they are safe and then people can enjoy themselves comfortably," Wu said.
If you are having a party, keep your numbers lower or keep it outside, for example.
Again, it is best to be vaccinated if you're planning a family get-together for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, or another holiday in the coming months.
"Remember, the more households that are together … increases the chances that someone is ill," Wu said.
Reduce that risk by getting vaccinated and encouraging friends and family to do the same, he added.
Reasons for Optimism
When asked if potential FDA approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in children 5 to 11 years old could make a difference this holiday season, Wu replied, "Well, certainly the more persons that are vaccinated, the safer it will be. And we certainly do know children can get COVID-19 and they can spread it."
"I encourage folks to monitor the news and talk to their physicians when these vaccines are approved to see if it makes sense to have your family vaccinated," he said.
Overall, although there are reasons to celebrate this holiday season, the pandemic is not over yet. "Remember, we are not yet at a point where we can do everything like we used to do before the pandemic. So let's not make the mistake of letting our guard down too soon," Wu said.
"On the other hand, we really do have tools to control the pandemic, and safely do so much that we missed out on last year."