Health  |  News & Politics

Should You Go to That Christmas Party? An Epidemiologist Answers Your Pressing Holiday Questions.

"I know that everyone has pandemic fatigue, but this is real."

Photo by Vesnaandjic, via Getty Images.

DC is experiencing a coronavirus outbreak ahead of the holidays, setting two new daily case records this week. In response, restaurants are temporarily stopping indoor dining, sports leagues are postponing games, and schools are returning to virtual learning—could upcoming festivities be pushed back to 2020 norms, too? We asked George Washington University epidemiologist Amanda Castel about how to celebrate safely this holiday season.

Should I go to holiday parties? 

“I think it depends on how badly you want to go to that event. Talk to the host. What are the activities? Is there going to be food? Is there going to be a large number of people? Is it people you know are going to be vaccinated and boosted?  I think it’s reasonable to ask those questions before you decide whether or not you’re going to attend.

“If you’re the host and someone in your household is not feeling well or you’re not feeling well, then I think you should have a low threshold to cancel a party. We just need to have a low threshold to say, ‘I’m not sure what this is, so maybe I should stay home.’ You need to speak to the people that you’re gathering with about how vulnerable they are.”

Should I still see family during the holidays? 

“Have a discussion with your family members. There may be people who are not vaccinated—maybe they want to opt out of a gathering this year just because the risk is too great. Or maybe you have older relatives and mixing with younger children, for example, who haven’t been vaccinated. Maybe people want to stay not all in one house, but they want to be able to actually see each other during the day, wear masks or socially distance or be outside, and then go back to their own location for meals.”

Should I travel for the holidays? 

“If the recent Thanksgiving holiday was any indication, people are going to be traveling over the December holidays. If you’re deciding how to travel, the safest bet is still to travel in your personal car or vehicle, assuming that you can travel reasonably in the car.

“Know the information about the destination where you’re going. Are they experiencing a surge of coronavirus? Is there testing available? If you’re someone who has multiple health conditions, you might want to know what the situation is in terms of hospitals, because we’re starting to see a lot of hospitals at capacity. You just want to make sure that you’re prepared and that you have the proper prevention tools that you can use in that setting.

“If you’re traveling internationally, I think you should be aware of rapidly changing guidelines around Omicron, and testing requirements both to enter into other countries and to return to the United States. If you’re vaccinated, make sure you have a copy of your vaccine cards because you will need it.”

Should I ask my guests to take a rapid test before coming over? 

“I would certainly encourage that as another layer of prevention of spreading the virus. From a test standpoint, the PCR is the gold standard. If you want to gather and you want to do a rapid screening, then rapid antigens are one way to do that.”

How can I lower the risk of an in-person gathering?
“If you do decide to gather, I would try to meet outdoors if at all possible. And if that’s not possible, you should make sure that you’re gathering in a well-ventilated area. Consider wearing a mask, particularly if you’re around people who are immunosuppressed and particularly also for people who are not vaccinated. This new variant is highly contagious. While people have been a little bit more relaxed in their mask-wearing, it’s certainly something to consider as we go into this current surge and this holiday season. I know that everyone has pandemic fatigue, but this is real.”

Daniella Byck
Lifestyle Editor

Daniella Byck joined Washingtonian in 2022. She was previously with Outside Magazine and lives in Northeast DC.