As we head into the 2021 holiday season, COVID-19 statistics are improving but are still a concern. According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 66% of those 12 and older in the U.S. are now fully vaccinated, and 84% of those 65 and older are. Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are also currently declining.
However, the reality is that COVID-19 transmission and spread will still be a real risk during 2021 holiday gatherings. If your gathering includes unvaccinated friends or family members, then the risk is significantly greater.
Why get vaccinated now?
Olveen Carrasquillo, M.D., M.P.H., chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of Miami Health System, says that the lead-up to this year's holiday gatherings is a perfect time to get vaccinated if you're still on the fence about it. "Remember, you're not just doing it for yourself, but to keep your elderly relatives or other at-risk people safe," he says. "We already have scientific data that as vaccinations are increasing, they are helping reduce deaths in at-risk populations, such as elderly veterans."
It's also a good time for some recipients of the Pfizer vaccine to get a booster shot if they haven't already, he says. The CDC recommends this for people age 65 and over, adults with underlying medical conditions, or adults living or working in high-risk settings if your second vaccine shot was administered more than six months ago.
"If everyone is vaccinated, then it greatly reduces the risk for the entire gathering."
A few months ago, Dr. Carrasquillo would have been more likely to take a hard line stance on upcoming holiday gatherings as the Delta variant was tearing through the country. However, he has eased his outlook as COVID-19 cases and deaths have waned in recent months.
Even so, he recommends taking the necessary precautions to keep at-risk individuals in your family safe during family gatherings. "If everyone is vaccinated, then it greatly reduces the risk for the entire gathering," he says. "If someone is unvaccinated, I would recommend that they wear a mask as a courtesy. Of course, others can wear masks, as well, to make that person feel more comfortable. The bottom line is you don't want to be the one who gives it to an elderly person."
Awkward conversations at the dinner table are an age-old tradition at holiday gatherings.
This year, some of these conversations are going to involve the COVID vaccine. These conversations are never easy, but if you have vaccine-hesitant members of your family, there is a right way and a wrong way to engage in the discussion, Dr. Carrasquillo says.
"It's important to acknowledge their concerns and not belittle them or call their viewpoint ignorant," he says. "There is a lot of scary stuff going on in the world right now, and these misinformation campaigns are very sophisticated -- and play right into these fears."
Instead, Dr. Carrasquillo recommends hearing their viewpoint and asking them questions that encourage positive discussion. "I like to get to the heart of the matter at hand: What do we want? To be healthy. Now, how can we achieve that? Right now, vaccines are the answer," he says. "It can also help to recommend good sources of information. Their doctor is going to be a better source of information than a random Facebook post, for example."
You may not change many minds, but it's worth trying to understand their viewpoint and help them understand yours, he says. Ultimately, each family and individual will need to decide what they feel is safe and comfortable for them. However, there is no question that a gathering where everyone is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is a much safer gathering for everyone.
Wyatt Myers is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.
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