• The San Juan Daily Star

Making mental calculations for a safe holiday gathering

Thanksgiving last year in Los Angeles.

By Tara Parker-Pope

When I injured my knee a few years ago, it was something of a crisis. I canceled plans and stayed home. When I did venture out, I used crutches and a knee brace. Today, my knee isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t hold me back. I’ve just accepted that I have to do things a little differently.

We regularly take this holistic approach to our personal health. During the crisis phase of an injury or an illness, we do whatever is needed to take care of our bodies. But we never lose sight of the goal: to recover and enjoy life again.

By now, you may have figured out that the point of this story isn’t my knee injury.

In Friday’s edition of The Morning, David Leonhardt wrote about how we might navigate this point in the pandemic, where the coronavirus remains in our lives but vaccinated people in many parts of the country are not in crisis. Today, I’m going to explore how those ideas can help you plan for Thanksgiving and holiday gatherings.

Many of us are now in the recovery phase of this pandemic. During the early crisis, we needed to stay home to stay safe. But now that vaccines are available, it’s time to think holistically — focusing on the mental, emotional and social aspects of our health, too.

“Holidays are so important; they have meaning,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told me. “People have been isolated and fearful for almost two years.”

Of course, a holistic approach works only if you’ve been vaccinated and continue to take a few reasonable precautions. For unvaccinated adults, the pandemic remains a daily threat, and a personal choice to stay unvaccinated will continue to put you and those around you at risk.

Happy ‘Vax-giving’

The rules are different if you’re celebrating what I like to call “Vax-giving,” a Thanksgiving gathering in which everyone who is eligible is fully vaccinated and boosted. Even children ages 5 to 11 can have at least one shot, and some level of protection, by then. Children who are 4 and younger aren’t eligible for shots yet, but they’re still largely protected if they’re surrounded by vaccinated people.

I spoke with Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, about how parents with children too young to get the vaccines should navigate the holidays. Mina is one of those parents and will be traveling with his infant daughter to a fully vaccinated, four-generation Thanksgiving celebration. Before the gathering, everyone but the infant will take a rapid test. He said his main concern was protecting his 95-year-old grandfather.

“There’s still a lot of virus in the community, but the truth of the matter is, little kids are not exceedingly susceptible to disease with this virus,” Mina said. “I do think that by everyone testing the morning of Thanksgiving or even two hours before dinner, it’s going to massively decrease any risk and make everyone feel more comfortable to be around each other without masks.”

Baby steps

For many people, coping with the anxiety of getting out and about may be the hardest part of adjusting to this new phase of pandemic life.

Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech, is planning a multigenerational gathering for Christmas and New Year that will include air travel. But she said that she and her family had only recently dined indoors for the first time.

“It was a restaurant in a university town where the vaccination rate is high,” Marr said. “I asked if the staff had all been vaccinated. I calculated — almost everyone here, if not everyone, is probably vaccinated; at some point we want to eat out. Let’s go for it.”

Marr said it took a mental adjustment to spend time indoors and unmasked with strangers. “It was a little nerve-racking,” she said. “We kept our masks on until the food came. Baby steps.”

Like winter driving

Going forward, part of living with COVID will mean doing these sorts of on-the-spot calculations to assess risk. It sounds difficult, but it’s the kind of mental calculus that comes naturally with more familiar dangers.

Think about winter driving. We know that thousands of people are injured or killed each year on icy roads, but we don’t stay home all winter. We check the forecast and whether the roads have been plowed. We make sure our cars are in good condition, and then we buckle our seat belts and hit the road to shop for groceries, go to school or see family for the holidays.

Assessing risk for COVID will be similar and, eventually, just as natural.

It starts with staying aware of local COVID conditions, like hospitalizations and vaccination rates, and avoiding crowds and high-risk gatherings where we don’t know the vaccination status of others. We’ll wear masks when needed and use rapid home tests to keep gatherings COVID-free. And anyone who is sneezing or coughing should always stay home.

Jha says that he remains cautious about COVID when he’s not sure of the vaccination status of those around him and that he’s willing to skip things “on the margins.” He recently met a friend at a restaurant, and they decided to go somewhere else because it was packed. But he’s planning a Thanksgiving celebration that includes grandparents and children. Everyone who is eligible will be fully vaccinated and have a booster shot.

“Can we do it with 100% safety? I don’t know that we could do it with 100% safety in 2019,” he said. “I feel like we now know how to manage the risks, and we can do things in a way to keep everyone safe. There’s no reason to keep missing these really important, meaningful times together.”

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