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The Medical Minute: Virtual gatherings may be best way to celebrate holidays together

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Dr. Glenn Buchberger is giving his patients sobering advice these days.

“Unfortunately, I do not have many happy answers this year to questions about staying healthy at the holidays,” said Buchberger, an internist and pediatrician at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. “This is a tough year for families to get together.”

Buchberger said in light of COVID-19, patients, friends and relatives have been asking his advice on whether there is a safe way to gather around a table for a meal with loved ones, especially on Thanksgiving.

His answer: the only sure way to avoid infection is to not gather in person, but if families are willing to accept some risk and they really want to be together in person, the best approach is a strict 14-day quarantine ahead of the holiday. People who are traveling should take their own car, not fly or take a bus. While airlines in particular have found ways to keep air purified and have strict cleaning protocols, that may not be enough, he contends. Being around other people or touching surfaces in an airport could be a risk of contracting COVID-19, regardless of whether your fellow travelers are wearing masks.

The second-best option, he added, is planning a gathering with a small group to take place outdoors or even in a garage with the door open. Slightly less preferred would be to have a large group gather together outside.

Having people who have not quarantined come together in a home is not recommended, he said, especially if it is a large group. And, while air purifiers may help some, they will not fully protect people in the same room with someone who is infected with COVID-19.

Across the country right now families are discussing their options for celebrating Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and other holidays together while COVID-19 health restrictions are necessary. People who have always been together during these happy times are struggling with the idea of being physically apart.

Add to the equation that hundreds of thousands of college students soon will be on their way home, some potentially bringing COVID-19 with them. They could spread it if they interact with friends, siblings, parents and grandparents, who are at a much higher risk of serious illness. The holiday season also is when an uptick in seasonal influenza cases occurs, and health care professionals are telling people to get a flu shot more than ever this year.

As for getting a COVID test before getting together with family, Buchberger said that can give a false sense of safety. He warns that having a negative result on a COVID test does not always mean a person is virus free; it just means they are not shedding enough COVID virus to show up on the test. People could be in the early stages of the illness, before any symptoms appear, he said. Another factor to keep in mind is that someone could easily contract the new coronavirus after they have been tested.

Buchberger also has a warning about a popular event around Thanksgiving time – especially among college students and young adults – called “Friendsgiving.” Before setting off to be with families for Thanksgiving, groups of friends hold their own dinners. Buchberger said even if everyone at these events is younger and healthy, they must assume that following the dinner, someone will interact with a person who is older or has pre-existing conditions.

“The positive of all of this is we do know how to prevent this thing,” said Buchberger. “We know that being apart and wearing masks work.”

In the end, families may decide, for the safety of everyone, especially older loved ones and people with underlying conditions, the best way to be together is online. That, said Buchberger, is the safest approach. Sharing a meal virtually will keep everyone’s mind at ease that no one is going to become seriously ill.

“We just have to think that being apart is a loving, caring decision we make,” he said.

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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