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COVID and the holidays: Do we still need to worry about gathering with family and friends?

Four members of a multigenerational family smile while sitting at the table together for Thanksgiving.
For the holidays, is it safe to gather with family and friends? Experts say yes but with some stipulations. (Getty Images)

It's no secret that the holiday season has been different since the coronavirus pandemic began. In 2020, families were encouraged not to gather to lower the risk of spreading COVID-1. Last year, people were strongly advised to get together only if everyone present was fully vaccinated and to consider masking up when indoors and, whenever possible, eating outside.

But 2022 feels different — and with good reason. Fewer people are dying of COVID-19 than they have in the past, and hospitalizations due to the virus are also down, per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We've also learned that, while having the COVID-19 vaccine dramatically lowers your risk of developing serious complications of the virus and dying from it, the shot won't necessarily keep you from getting infected in the first place. Mask mandates have been lifted across the country too, and most people have generally gone back to life as usual.

With that, it's unclear what to think as we head into a new holiday season. Should we still be concerned about gathering with family and friends, or is it OK to get back to celebrating as usual?

Experts say yes to celebrating with family and friends this year — but with some stipulations. "Gathering for the holidays is less of a concern, but it shouldn't be a non-concern," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. COVID-19 cases are expected to surge again this winter, and he points out that there's always a risk of getting infected when people gather.

Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life that people should take some "precautions" before they get together for the holidays. "It starts with getting vaccinated and being up to date with all your boosters," he says.

But, of course, not everyone is vaccinated (or will ever get vaccinated), and Russo acknowledges that not many people have gotten the new bivalent booster, which helps protect against the heavily circulating BA.4 and BA.5 variants of the virus. According to CDC data, just 7.3% of people ages 5 and up have received this booster.

"If everyone is vaxxed to the max, the likelihood of getting into trouble is low, and the gathering should be relatively comfortable and safe," Russo says. He notes that while the vaccine is "imperfect" at protecting against infection, being up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines still makes it less likely that someone who is infected will pass on the virus to others and, for those who are vaccinated, reduces the risk that they will actually get the virus if they're around someone who is infected.

If you're traveling on public transportation, such as taking an airplane, bus or train to meet family, Russo says it's a good idea to wear a mask, just to be safe. That's especially important if you'll be meeting up with vulnerable loved ones, such as babies who are too young to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, older adults and people with serious underlying health conditions, he says.

Another precaution to consider — especially if there are vulnerable people who will be at the gathering — is to have everyone take rapid tests the morning of your get-together, Schaffner says.

It's also crucial to make it clear to everyone that no one who is sick should be coming. "If you have a stuffy nose, please don't come," Schaffner says, noting that COVID-19 tests can give false negative results if taken too early and that many people just aren't bothering to test themselves anyway. "I don't think we should be casual about this," he adds.

Ultimately, Russo just recommends being smart during the holiday season. "If you're gathering with unvaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals, there is going to be some risk involved," he says. "It's a strange world that we're in right now. There are still people dying from COVID, and it's important to be aware of that."

"This holiday season, everyone expects that there will be an increase in COVID," Schaffner says. "It's important to really concentrate on vaccination and testing."

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