We asked Yale School of Public Health Associate Professor Virginia Pitzer, ScD, what advice she would give people concerned about holiday gatherings this year given the current multi-pronged threat of COVID-19, flu, and RSV. Pitzer is an expert on virus transmission and a faculty member in the Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases. She earned her ScD in epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health and is a former postdoctoral fellow in Research and Policy for Infectious Disease Dynamics (RAPIDD) at the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health. Here’s what she had to say:
Should I wear a mask at my office holiday party or when visiting relatives over the holidays?
Virginia Pitzer (VP): I think we are all tired of wearing masks, particularly in situations where we are with close friends or relatives and eating or drinking, like we often are around the holidays. If you or someone you live with are at high risk of complications from COVID, RSV, or the flu (e.g. if you are elderly, immunocompromised, or have a newborn infant at home), you may want to wear a mask in such situations or maybe skip the office holiday party this year. But we are in a different situation than we were two years ago or even last year. Many of us have immunity, both from vaccination and from previous exposure, which is likely to protect us from experiencing serious symptoms if we are infected. That said, I would still encourage people to wear masks in situations where it is not so cumbersome, such as when you are out shopping, on public transportation, or in the airport, particularly this time of year. In addition to reducing respiratory transmission, masks also prevent you from inadvertently touching your mouth/nose without washing or sanitizing your hands.
I have a surgical mask, but with all of the respiratory illnesses circulating would it be better to wear an N-95 mask?
VP: When it comes to one-way masking (which is most often the situation these days), an N-95 or KN-95 mask is better and more likely to protect you than a surgical mask. But if you only have a surgical mask, that is better than no mask at all.
I’m hosting family and friends for the holidays, what can I do to protect them from possible infection?
VP: I think testing for COVID before a big gathering is one of the easiest things we can do. Many insurance companies reimburse the cost of tests, and the government is once again offering free COVID tests through the mail. If you test positive, isolate at home (for at least 5 days and ideally until you test negative again on a rapid test). If you or one of your guests have any respiratory symptoms, it might be a good idea to reconsider attending the gathering, particularly if it includes vulnerable grandparents or newborn infants. And it is always a good idea to wash your hands frequently and to be up to date on your vaccines.
My children have been invited to a neighborhood holiday party. Is it safe for them to go?
VP: Kids need to be kids. Unfortunately, that also means that they are going to be exposed to a lot of germs, whether it is at school or the neighborhood holiday party.
I’m flying over the holidays to visit my elderly grandparents. I’ll be wearing a mask while traveling, but should I keep my mask on during my visit? Both grandparents are vaccinated.
VP: I think the better thing to do would be to rapid test before you leave and during your visit, and isolate or certainly mask if you experience any symptoms. But it may be difficult (for both you and them) to mask throughout the visit, since masking can make it harder to understand what you are saying.