Pandemic holidays: Planning for the 2021 holiday season

For some Americans, a normal gathering is safe again

We're still in a pandemic this year, but thanks to COVID-19 vaccines, gathering for the holidays can look a little different from last year's recommendations.

Editor’s note: As what we know about COVID-19 evolves, so could the information in this story. Find our most recent COVID-19 blog posts here, and learn the latest in COVID-19 prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

As we approach Thanksgiving 2021 and other winter holidays, we’re facing another holiday season in a pandemic. The good news, though? While there are still precautions to take, this holiday season looks to be significantly lower risk than winter 2020 when it comes to spreading COVID-19. 

2020 vs. 2021: What’s different about holiday planning

Vaccination and other precautionary measures that have been in place for the last year have lowered the risk of significant surges in COVID-19 cases after the holidays this year. 

Last year around this time, we were preparing for an upcoming surge — one that would prove to be one of the largest COVID-19 case surges that we experienced in the entire pandemic thus far. But there are still precautions you should take to ensure a safe holiday season.

Where to start a conversation with loved ones about precautions 

Having an open dialogue about vaccination status and infection status is very helpful when assessing and managing risk for holiday planning. This was true last year and remains important.

It’s a personal choice to ask family and friends whether they’re vaccinated, and it’s a personal choice to answer that question. Regardless of vaccination status, COVID-19 testing beforehand can help you and your loved ones have a better idea of the risk of spreading COVID-19. Learn more here about when and how to test for COVID-19.

Some families are going to see contentious debates around the table this year, but I’d advise keeping in mind that there are many different perspectives to consider and that deciding on vaccination and pandemic precautions can be emotional regardless of where you stand. 

If you're wondering where your fellow Americans stand, a national survey conducted by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center found that about three-fourths of Americans plan to celebrate Thanksgiving only with their own household, and about half will ask their guests to wear masks.

Recommended precautions based on your situation

If everyone is vaccinated and relatively low-risk for COVID-19 complications

If everyone at your holiday gathering is vaccinated and no one is high-risk for severe COVID-19, you can really have a normal experience — even indoors. You don’t need to have additional precautions for COVID-19, such as wearing masks, holding the gathering outdoors or physically distancing.

If there’s at least one attendee in your gathering who’s considered high-risk for severe COVID-19

If someone in the group has high-risk characteristics, such as cancer, severe heart disease or even diabetes, taking extra precautions is recommended. This includes wearing masks, holding a gathering outdoors if possible and/or social distancing.

If the group is a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people

People who are unvaccinated are at the greatest risk for severe disease right now. 

People who are unvaccinated are also at the greatest risk of spreading disease — the majority of COVID-19 transmission is coming from unvaccinated individuals to others. 

If there are unvaccinated loved ones attending a gathering, consider holding the event outdoors, wearing masks when possible, and/or social distancing, especially if there are attendees who are considered especially high-risk for severe disease.

Precautions for everyone

Of course, even in typical years, we want to ensure that we’re not spreading any disease at holiday gatherings. That means skipping or postponing a gathering when you’re sick, washing hands frequently, covering coughs and sneezes and maintaining safe food practices.

5 keys for food safety on Thanksgiving 

Monitor yourself and your household for symptoms

If you’re experiencing respiratory symptoms, it can be hard to determine whether those are from COVID-19, the flu or a typical cold. 

A cold, the flu or COVID-19: What’s the difference?

If you do experience those symptoms, I recommend getting a COVID-19 test to be certain. Keep yourself isolated until you’re sure you don’t have COVID-19, regardless of whether you’re vaccinated. 

We know that isolating and spending some time to determine the cause of your symptoms can help you prevent the spread not only of COVID-19, but also the flu, RSV and other respiratory infections. This can help you keep your community or family members from getting sick.

If you have COVID-19 symptoms, consider isolating yourself from others, and consider canceling or postponing plans, especially if you would come into contact with someone who’s unvaccinated or who is vaccinated but is considered high-risk for severe disease if they were to contract COVID-19.

The best thing to do as soon as you have COVID-19 symptoms is wear a mask when you’re around others. That helps contain respiratory droplets that spread disease.

Considerations for travel

When traveling to different cities to visit loved ones, be aware that there may be local regulations or expectations that don’t match mandates or guidelines where you live. If you’re in an area that requires masks because the city, state or individual business is requesting that, please respect those precautions. 

These measures can prevent the spread of disease and keep people safe, but it’s also going to help those around you have peace of mind.

Stay informed of changing guidelines and recommendations

It’s a confusing time right now. Public health recommendations change as we learn more about COVID-19, the development of new variants, and how the disease responds to the prevention and treatment tools at our disposal.

To find additional information and the latest public health advice, you can always check the CDC website and your local health department website, as well as the website for health departments in areas you may be traveling to. These sites often provide information about precautionary measures that are required in a given state or municipality, but they also might list how many cases are currently in that community and what your risks may be, allowing you to better manage risk and have fun without worry.

Here at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, we work closely with the Ohio Department of Health, Franklin County Public Health and Columbus Public Health

The bottom line

Many of us are sick of talking about COVID-19, hearing about COVID-19, and planning our lives around the risk of COVID-19. If you want to reduce your risk as much as possible and prioritize safety from COVID-19, I would recommend foregoing large events and focusing on something with a small circle of loved ones. 

However, this year, it’s possible to have a relatively safe large gathering, as long as everyone in attendance is thoughtfully, purposefully approaching the event by doing what they can to prevent disease spread, by getting vaccinated and vaccinating children who are eligible, and by practicing everyday COVID-19 precautions.

Iahn Gonsenhauser is chief quality and patient safety officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and an assistant professor in The Ohio State University College of Medicine.