As COVID-19 cases tick up across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending against travel for the holidays. Experts say the safest way to celebrate this year is at home with the people you live with.

Dr. Genevieve Brauning
Dr. Genevieve Brauning

Dr. Genevieve Brauning at Novant Health SouthPark Family Physicians said conversations about COVID-19 make up about half of what she’s discussing with patients. Two misconceptions among the general public stick out. Most importantly, Brauning said people are overestimating the value of pre-travel or pre-event COVID-19 testing.

“A negative test is not a license to travel or let your guard down. It can take up to 14 days from exposure for someone to test positive, so a negative test can give people a false sense of security,” Brauning said. “We’ve had at least three family outbreaks from patients where everyone tested negative before Thanksgiving, but someone’s test hadn’t yet converted and now dozens of people are COVID positive.” (see flyer below)

COVID-19 can also look different for everyone. While it may feel like a cold, a runny nose or last year’s sinus infection, Brauning cautioned people not to make an assumption. The bottom line: The coronavirus comes in all shapes and sizes. Any sickness is worth talking to your doctor about.

She offered additional advice about how to navigate the rest of the year, including the winter holidays.

The holidays and COVID

“This is a tough one,” she said. “I was hopeful we could gather and find safe ways to do so – masking around family members at increased risk, hosting a smaller meal or eating outside. With the rise in cases, however, we really need to heed the newest CDC recommendation to not travel for the winter holidays. I understand it’s hard, but we should not be celebrating with people we do not live with. We have to be mindful of how easy it is to asymptomatically spread this infection.

“Even if you had planned to drive, I would advise against traveling anywhere that’s outside of your own community and current bubble. The problem with travel is that we can move infection from one place to another.

The CDC recommends celebrating only with people from your household – defined as those who live in the same house in the 14 days before the celebration. So, if you already interact regularly with family members who live in your city and you’ve been consistently exposed to them over the past two weeks, then I don’t think it’s the same restriction as people you don’t regularly interact with.

The other thing I think it a huge barrier for people is fear of judgment. Saying you will not come home or asking someone not to come can be difficult. I think we all need to let go of any judgment or guilt for doing things to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, because that is standing in the way of some people making safer decisions.”

CDC recommendations

For people who still choose to host others, the CDC offered guidance on how to do so as safely as possible, like spacing chairs far apart, limiting the number of people and laying out mask expectations for guests ahead of time. This is not the year to hug anyone – especially your grandmother or other loved one who’s in a higher risk category.

Other recommendations include:

  • Remind guests to stay home if they are sick.
  • Do not shake hands, do elbow bumps or give hugs. Wave and verbally greet guests.
  • Remind guests to wash their hands often, especially when they arrive.
  • Avoid self-serve options and instead, identify one person to serve food or drinks so people are not sharing utensils.
  • Use paper towels, single-use silverware and individual condiments to avoid spreading germs.

Brauning added that if someone still plans to travel or celebrate with people not in their household that everyone needs to be 100 percent masked indoors.

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Kids returning from college

“Many colleges are closing for the semester and those students must return home,” Brauning said. “There’s a lot of worry in the medical community that it’s going to be a significant spreader. I recommend that students get a COVID-19 test before leaving school. If they’re tested and they’re being very diligent about isolating and wearing a mask, that’s going to be helpful.

“I think we also need to revisit this very uncomfortable idea of masking around our family and within our household. It seems so unfamiliar, but it would decrease the risk of asymptomatic spread if someone new has returned to your household. Masking for that initial exposure time can be key.”

Grocery shopping

“Groceries are a necessity. Avoiding the grocery store isn’t entirely possible, but the more we can spread out when we go is helpful, Brauning said. “People who can go on a weekday or early in the morning when crowds tend to be smaller should do so. That way people who work during the week will have a little more space on the weekends. So, the more we can spread out the times we are going, the less people we are exposed to. Also, be diligent about wearing your mask.

“Maybe it’s worth a small fee to get groceries delivered or choose the drive-thru option where they shop for you and place the groceries in your car. You do not need to sanitize all your groceries, but make sure to wash your hands after you put away your items.

“We have a lot of control over our own risk and I think that’s empowering,” Brauning said. “We have things we know we can do to protect ourselves, like wearing a mask and washing our hands, but we also have the freedom to walk away from a situation that doesn’t appear safe.”