Chris Baliga, MD

Chris Baliga, MD

Your best COVID defense during the holidays

‘Mask up’ and take precautions, say infectious disease specialists

PORT ORCHARD — A Seattle-based infectious disease expert says a weary population entering a second straight holiday season burdened by the effects of a global COVID-19 pandemic are understandably anxious to put this entire “misadventure” behind them.

There are signs that Americans — with a significant percentage of the population having been fully vaccinated — are beginning to reemerge in greater numbers than last year for the start of the greatest social holiday season of the calendar year, highlighted by Thanksgiving and Christmas family festivities in November and December.

But amid the holiday excitement, caution still needs to be exercised by the traveling public in these COVID times. It’s rumored even Santa Claus will be masked during his airborne trip around the globe.

Chris Baliga, MD, the medical director for infection prevention and control at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health in Seattle, says that despite a slow, but an encouraging decline in the numbers of those affected by the virus over the past several months, common-sense precautions should continue to be taken by folks — whether they plan to celebrate at home or at public venues.

Chris Baliga, MD

Chris Baliga, MD

“There’s definitely a group of people who are wanting to return to the holidays as normal, and life as normal,” Baliga said in an interview from his office.

“There’s another group that’s vaccinated and still worry about it, but feel they are well prepared. And then there’s yet another group that remains very concerned about COVID and probably will not be traveling and engaging in group activities this year.”

To get to those family gatherings, many will hit the highways or travel by air. The number of travelers in transit will be daunting, even for veteran travelers used to airport congestion in pre-COVID times.

All one needs to do is take a look at the nearby Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Its common areas are chock full of travelers and the security lines are long. The Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, is reporting that 2.5 times more people have passed through security checkpoints than at this time last year.

With federal mask mandates at airports in place and an increasingly immunized population, travelers are still cautioned to keep abreast of any new travel requirements necessitated by the pandemic. That’s especially pertinent for those heading to international destinations.

Preparation and precautions

Preparation is key to minimizing the chance of contracting the coronavirus, the physician and infectious disease expert said. The first line of defense against the spread of the virus, Baliga said, is getting fully vaccinated and wearing masks while in public and in social settings.

“If you’re in public at an indoor venue where there’s a lot of people and the ventilation isn’t good, then masking is recommended regardless of your vaccination status,” he said. “Of course, if you’re traveling on public transportation, masking is required. It just makes sense to me to keep those extra layers of protection.”

Baliga cautioned that those with weakened immune systems who have been fully vaccinated often find they don’t respond to the vaccine as well as have others. For that population, and for the elderly and those who have chosen not to get vaccinated, masking is their best line of defense.

He cautioned that the vaccine, while demonstrably effective, isn’t fool-proof. But the good news is that those who contract the virus despite being fully vaccinated most often exhibit mild symptoms and are able to avoid a visit to the hospital — and a stay in the ICU.

Last Friday, the FDA announced that all people now vaccinated are eligible to receive the booster shot.

“I would encourage them to get it,” Baliga said. “We do see the effectiveness [of the vaccine] start to wane over time. I’m a big believer in the booster. I have mine and I think anyone who qualifies should get it.”

It may be challenging to get a booster shot before the Christmas holiday, though. With the announcement last Friday, the infectious disease specialist said pharmacies, medical centers, and pop-up clinics are expected to be inundated with requests for appointments.

“If they’re able to pull it off, I would recommend they do it,” he said.

Guidelines for a stress-free holiday celebration

Here are some guidelines that Baliga says people planning to travel over the holidays should do to minimize their exposure to the COVID virus:

  • If you have a choice of transportation to your destination and it’s feasible, get there by car. “You can bypass all the concerns about crowded airports and planes,” he said.
  • If public transportation by air or rail is necessary, use a mask when indoors and around people you don’t know.
  • Be judicious about when and how long you have your mask off while dining in a public setting. “I would caution people that their greatest risk is when they take their mask off when drinking or eating,” Baliga said.
  • If you’re elderly or have a weakened immune system, consider getting a COVID test before heading out for the holidays. A negative test offers some reassurance of a stress-free holiday.
  • Continue the habit of washing your hands to guard against viral transmission.

Dr. Greg Schrank, assistant professor of medicine specializing in infectious diseases at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, says many international destinations still have mandatory quarantine periods and testing requirements.

“Outside of specific requirements that are enforced by a country, the decision of an individual to quarantine should be based on whether they develop any COVID-19 symptoms,” Schrank says.

Some countries may even require you to self-isolate or restrict movement on arrival. For example, travelers currently cannot enter Japan and New Zealand, but that’s subject to change at any time, so it’s best to check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website.

The CDC says that people who are fully vaccinated or who have recovered from COVID-19 within the last three months do not need to quarantine after travel, even if they’ve come in contact with someone who had COVID-19 during the previous 14 days.

The CDC defines fully vaccinated as two weeks after having had the second dose of a two-dose series (vaccines such as Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna) or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine (Johnson & Johnson). If you are not fully vaccinated, the CDC recommends taking a test one to three days before travel.

Lots of holiday homebodies

A significant number of folks plan to stay home this holiday season. A survey by researchers from The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center found that nearly three-fourths of Americans plan to celebrate just with household members and 46% say they will require unvaccinated guests to test negative for COVID-19. About half also said they would ask their guests to wear facemasks, compared to 67% of respondents surveyed in 2020.

Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician from Atlanta, said people are cautious this holiday season and are wary about facing the prospects of another round of COVID-19 illnesses. She said that even if your holiday participants have all been vaccinated, it’s still wise to use caution.

Shu told United Press International that while the pandemic is easing, we’re not back to pre-pandemic times just yet.

Remember: Mask up and take precautions based on your own health status. And work just as hard to enjoy the holiday season.

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