With the holiday season upon us, now is a good time to think about how to celebrate with the people you love. In years past, holiday planning revolved around deciding who was going to host, who was going to attend, and who was bringing the turkey.
This year that list should also include making a plan for safe holiday gatherings amid the ongoing pandemic, especially as we see the number of cases rise again.
Last year, a lot of our holiday traditions were disrupted. This year, we have many more tools in our arsenal for ensuring a safe and disease-free holiday.
First among these are the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. But even these excellent vaccines are imperfect and not available to everyone, and those of us with unvaccinated children or potentially vulnerable grandparents should consider a COVID-19 safety plan that goes beyond vaccination.
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COVID-19 tests, particularly rapid tests, can be a key component of such a plan and let us have holiday gatherings that are far more worry free than would otherwise be possible. However, understanding these tests, and what they do and do not tell us, is critical for using them effectively.
There are two types of COVID-19 tests available — PCR tests and rapid antigen tests. There are pros and cons to both and depending on what you want out of testing, one or the other might be the best choice. Both the length of the gathering, and how far people travel to get there, can influence how we think about using testing for holiday safety.
If you are gathering for a single meal or short event, the question you want answered is “Am I currently infectious?” Rapid antigen tests are excellent for answering this question.
Regardless of symptoms, they have few false negative results when the question of interest is whether you are currently infectious (as opposed to whether you are infected and may soon be, or were recently, infectious).
They also have the benefit of being able to be taken at home, immediately before the event. If everyone has a negative rapid test result just before gathering, the chances that someone could be infectious at the event are quite low.
Tests available over the counter
Rapid antigen tests are available over the counter at most drug and grocery stores. As part of your holiday planning, as you stock up on wine and spirits, you could also begin to stock up on these tests to ensure that you aren’t scrambling to find them the day before Thanksgiving.
If the goal is to detect whether you are currently, recently, or about to be infectious, PCR tests are more sensitive than rapid antigen tests. This means they do a better job at detecting even a small amount of virus in your system.
If you are about to gather with your loved ones for an extended stay, you don’t just care if you are infectious today, but whether you will be infectious at any time during that stay.
In this setting, getting a negative PCR test the day before your trip is the best way to make sure you don’t have a latent infection that might turn infectious in the next few days.
Even this is not foolproof, however, especially as the length of stay increases. Another option is to turn your “extended stay” into multiple “short gatherings,” taking a rapid antigen test every day or two to make sure you aren’t infectious throughout the trip.
One of the things people get most concerned about when it comes to holiday gatherings is not getting infected at their holiday dinner, but getting infected on the way there.
This is a particular concern as no one wants to be the person who turns their holiday gathering into a superspreader event (although vaccines will keep folks out of the hospital, they are no guarantee of stopping mass transmission).
Testing can help here too. A PCR test before traveling is a good way to help ensure you don’t leave your home already infected and arrive only to find you have to isolate from the friends and family you came to see.
Once you arrive it is important to remember that a negative rapid test (or even PCR test) on arrival does not mean you were not infected on the way, as it takes a few days from infection for the virus to be detectable. So, ongoing testing over the course of your stay will be needed if you want to ensure you did not get infected during your trip.
Make plans beyond testing
Testing is a great tool for ensuring a COVID-19 safe holiday, but planning should not start and end there. Particularly those engaged in long distance travel should consider other precautions. High-quality masks are now widely available and can greatly reduce the chances of getting infected during a long trip on public transportation.
It also still makes sense to keep track of the current COVID-19 numbers, and if cases surge back perhaps consider forgoing the holiday travel for one more year, as high case counts can counteract the effectiveness of even the most careful COVID-19 safety plan.
If not everyone is onboard with vaccination and testing, steps can be taken, such as moving the party outdoors, to reduce risk.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet behind us, the new tools at our disposal can minimize how much the pandemic disrupts our holidays. Gathering with friends and family is one of the things that makes life worth living, and planning ahead is the best way to take advantage of the advances we have made in COVID-19 control to ensure a joyful, worry-free holiday season.
Lucy D’Agostino McGowan is an assistant professor in the Mathematics and Statistics Department at Wake Forest University. Justin Lessler is a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID and Thanksgiving: How to have a safe and worry-free gathering