Last year, Halloween season was dominated by concerns about COVID vaccination status and social distancing. Luckily, this year is a bit different. With more than 68% of Americans fully vaccinated and more than 33% boosted, a lot of normalcy has returned. But as Halloween bashes ramp up and trick-or-treating plans come together, it’s important to remember that people are still at risk of catching COVID and other illnesses this season.

Chelle Jeffery is in a white lab coat smiling into the camera
Chelle Jeffery

“We are certainly still seeing COVID,” said Chelle Jeffery, a certified physician assistant with Novant Health New Garden Medical Associates in Greensboro. “So it is still something that we have to be vigilant about. But there’s a lot of COVID fatigue, people are tired of wearing masks, they’re tired of having to deal with all of the rigamarole of getting tested every time they have a sniffle, cough or sore throat.”

So how do we balance this desire for complete normalcy with the need to stay safe against COVID and other illnesses during Halloween? Here are 6 tips.

1. Get the new COVID booster as well as your flu shot.

Also known as a bivalent vaccine, the current booster is designed to protect us from the Omicron variant. “The Omicron variants are highly transmissible,” Jeffery said. “So it’s easier to get it and, while the symptoms are much milder than we saw with the initial strains of COVID, they can still make people very sick. Also, flu is here now.”

Good news: People can get their flu shot and bivalent COVID booster dose at the same time, if they’d like to.

“We encourage people to get both vaccines now,” Jeffery said. “Keep in mind that they do take two weeks to reach full benefit in our system. No vaccine is 100% effective but having been vaccinated reduces the severity of illness relative to people who are unvaccinated.”

2. Assess the level of risk you’re comfortable with.

COVID created a lot of sensitivity about physical closeness with others, especially strangers. The effort to keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others in public became a common practice.

“The risks are still there,” Jeffery said. “But we are better now at assessing our personal risk. More people are vaccinated. We have perhaps gotten better at having conversations with the people that we know and spend time with about what level of risk we’re comfortable with.”

So whether you’re attending a Halloween party or getting close to neighbors to trick-or-treat, masking is still safer and keeping distance from others is still safer. But without mandates in place, it’s your choice.

“Know who you’re around and know what level of risk you’re comfortable with,” Jeffery said. “Engage in the risk-reduction measures that work for you.”

3. Keep your candy exchanges quick.

Leaving a bowl of candy out on the steps is still the safest option, but if you love handing out candy on Halloween, that’s a low-risk choice.

“This is a respiratory transmissible virus,” Jeffery said. “So you touching a candy wrapper and then a kid touching a candy wrapper, that is not a way that COVID is generally transmitted. Trick-or-treating is typically a brief encounter. It would be safer to wear a mask while handing out candy, but the minimal exposure offers a relatively safe, though not risk-free, activity.”

4. Wash your hands well – and use hand sanitizer if you’re unable to.

“We know we stay healthier if we clean our hands more frequently and if we don’t touch our face,” Jeffery said. “If you don’t have access to soap and water, use hand sanitizer after shaking hands and before you touch food. Do the smart thing, which is relatively easy regardless of COVID.”

Make it festive, if that helps. Stores are full of fall-themed soaps, from apple cider-scented to pumpkin spice-scented varieties. Make the most of it.

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5. You’re still allowed to wear a mask.

Lately, unless you’re in a medical facility, masking up seems like a thing of the past. But don’t let that stop you from wearing a mask if that’s the right action for you.

“Most mask mandates have been lifted but a mask can still protect you from infection of all kinds,” Jeffery said. “If you prefer to lower your risk, especially if you are at higher risk for severe illness, you can still wear a mask. If you see someone else wearing a mask, be respectful. Maybe they have a condition that requires them to be extra careful.”

6. Smaller parties are still lower-risk.

“If you have fewer people together, then there are fewer people to be bringing things in and then fewer people to get what someone might have brought in knowingly or unknowingly,” Jeffery said. “So that does help to reduce the spread, especially if it’s people we know. We know their behaviors and risk levels, which may be aligned with our own.”

Follow these tips and have a happy, healthy Halloween. Before you know it, it’ll be time to start dreaming up some balanced holiday recipes.