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Risking the holidays

Woman and child with mask
Amid a flood of “expert” guidelines around COVID-19, seniors’ decisions about holiday celebrations this year may come down to their individual levels of risk tolerance. (Source: Adobe Stock)

As holiday preparations move into full swing, skyrocketing rates of COVID-19 infections are causing many older Americans to rethink the annual traditions and family celebrations that make the season special. But making the decision to completely change – or cancel – their treasured holiday get-togethers based on often confusing advice from local and national health  experts and government agencies is likely creating more questions than answers for many.

For example, what does the CDC guidance stating that “those at increased risk from coronavirus should not attend in-person holiday gatherings” actually mean? While the CDC defines the at-risk population as “older adults” and those with chronic medical conditions, fully a third of the nation’s population – about 100 million adults – are over age 50.

So, should a third of us isolate ourselves from just about everyone this holiday season? What experts seem to be saying is that the decision is up to each individual, based on our individual risk tolerance. “This is not a one-size-fits-all issue,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently said on the topic of holiday gatherings. “It depends on what risk you want to take…It is difficult if not impos- sible to quantify what that risk is.”

According to the current “Safer at Home” orders in effect for St. Louis County since mid-November, one way to mitigate the risk is by creating a “social bubble” of no more than 10 family members and friends, and interacting in person only with members of that group. While attending gatherings – even in the small groups required by the county’s mandate – with people from outside that bubble can be risky, making sure they arrive along with a negative coronavirus test result may help. But the best timing for these tests, and whether they are even accurate to begin with, is still an open question as well.

Ultimately, health experts recommend that after deciding what you are comfortable with and what you are not when it comes to celebrating the holidays this year, it’s important to clearly communicate your concerns and expectations. For instance, the often-repeated steps of mask-wearing, social distancing and handwashing will only lower your risk if they are firmly established as ground rules that everyone adheres to.

Whatever your level of risk tolerance, they agree it’s important to accept the reality that this year’s holiday celebrations will be different, and to look for ways to find joy and connection with family and friends anyhow – whether that means sharing holiday meals and opening gifts via Zoom or in person.

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