There are a number of reasons that winter is typically considered the height of flu season. Colder weather drives people to congregate indoors and, of course, the holidays bring families and friends together from near and far. For these reasons and many others, local public health officials are concerned about a spike in the number of cases of COVID-19.
“This has been a long, hard year; even for those of us dedicated to wearing masks, practicing hand hygiene and engaging in social distancing, it can be tiring, and the holidays may feel like an easy time to relax our efforts,” said Dr. James Kirk, an infectious disease specialist at SSM Health St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City. “We must remember the virus never rests, so we must stay vigilant and make smart plans in advance to help keep ourselves, our loved ones and the community at large safe and healthy.”
SSM Health St. Anthony is offering guidance for Oklahomans to celebrate the holidays safely and help limit the spread of the coronavirus in our communities:
- Timely testing: “This is not the year to dismiss something as a common cold or allergies. The only way to rule out coronavirus is with a test. Even if you feel well, a test will show whether you’re asymptomatic,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. But don’t proceed without other precautions if a test is negative, Prescott added. “Viruses build over days, and a test only tells us what viral load was at the moment a swab was inserted into your nose.”
- Quaran-team effort: End-of-year holidays traditionally include longer stays, close quarters and indoor activities. That’s a family recipe for virus transmission, said OMRF immunologist Eliza Chakravarty, M.D., but those gatherings can make it safer for one another with advance planning. “If you’re attending extended in-person holiday events with people who don’t live with you, strictly avoiding contact with people outside of your home for two weeks before the event is the safest way to do so,” said Dr. Eliza Chakravarty, OMRF physician-scientist.
- Wearing is caring: If spending time with anyone who does not live in your home, wear a mask, especially if there is a chance you may not be able to maintain six feet or more of distance at any given point. “We’d get coal in our stockings if we didn’t remind everyone — one more time — to wear a mask,” said Chakravarty. “Any time you’re with people who live outside of your household, everyone should mask up.”
- Plan social distancing in advance: Don’t let yourself or attendees of any gatherings you’re hosting be caught in an uncomfortable situation that could potentially promote the spread of COVID-19. Have a plan for how people who do not live in the same home can stay six feet apart – or more – at all times.
- Be cautious when eating: The holidays and family meals go hand in hand; however, because we cannot eat or drink with masks on, this can become a troublesome time for unknowingly transmitting COVID-19. If you must eat in a group setting, try to stagger the times attendees eat and ensure six feet or more of distance between each person. Spreading out outdoors or in a larger, more open room is preferred to a more confined space, although masking and social distancing are still recommended outside.
- Limit your numbers: The fewer people gather together, the fewer people may be exposed to the virus if an asymptomatic person is a member of the party.
- Keep your hands clean: Wash hands frequently for at least 20 seconds and/or use a hand sanitizer often.
- Don’t share: Viruses can live on surfaces, so it’s best to avoid touching things that may be touched by others. Opt for disposable items and label them to help lessen the risk guests may accidentally eat or drink after each other. Don’t plan games or activities that promote several people touching the same objects.
- If you’re sick, stay home!: Even if you don’t suspect COVID-19 is the reason you feel under the weather, it’s better to play it safe and not run the risk of exposing others. Take advantage of videoconferencing technology to connect from a distance.
According to the experts at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, the safest holiday is one spent at home only with immediate family. But for those who plan to gather, they suggest something they call “the nuclear option.” Instead of one big table for all party guests, set up several small tables for each nuclear family.
“Life will return to normal,” Prescott assured. “Vaccines are on the horizon. Sacrificing traditions this year may ensure your whole family can gather next year.”
“We know that celebrating holidays this year will be different, so having a plan to celebrate safely is a good way to make the best of things – including when it comes to limiting the spread of infection,” Kirk said. “With COVID-19 as in sports, sometimes the best defense is a good offense.”
The biggest question everyone will be asking throughout the season: “Do I have COVID or the flu?!” Check out this article from Dr. Jason Onarecker where he breaks down the differences.
About SSM Health in Oklahoma
The SSM Health network in Oklahoma also includes four SSM Health St. Anthony Healthplex campuses, a community freestanding ER in El Reno, Okla., 16 affiliated hospitals and SSM Health Medical Group with more than 250 physicians and providers.