Celebrate safely: Scientists offer advice, urge vigilance during holidays

'Now is the time for delayed gratification' — so skip big gatherings and travel to prevent the spread of COVID-19
photo showing a Santa doing a videochat with a child
Santa Larry speaks with a virtual visitor at the Santa Experience in the Mall of America on Nov. 24, 2020 in Bloomington, Minnesota. The owners had initially set up a socially distanced set, featuring a cabin with a plexiglass window, but moved completely online after new COVID-19 restrictions were put in place after an executive order by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. Photo by Stephen Maturen / Getty Images

In mid-November, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center hosted a far-ranging conversation about how to stay healthy and safe this holiday season, part of the Science Says series. Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Tom Lynch and an expert panel touched on issues that are dominating the headlines and our lives, including skyrocketing rates of COVID-19 infection; encouraging news about vaccine trials, including large-scale studies Fred Hutch is co-leading; and the cumulative effect of the pandemic on our mental health.

Here are a few take-home messages about staying healthy and safe this holiday season:

We can’t let our guard (or our masks) down. With more than 100,000 new cases of COVID-19 per day in the U.S., this is a dangerous time, said Dr. Steve Pergam, an infection control specialist. “Masks aren’t perfect, but they are an effective way to prevent transmission of the virus,” he said. “You can be quite infectious and not know you have the disease — and wearing a fabric mask could help you save someone’s life.”

There’s light at the end of the tunnel. Emerging data from COVID-19 vaccine trials give us all hope that effective vaccines could be available in a matter of months. “While we’re at the end of one tunnel, we’re entering another one,” noted panelist Dr. Parth Shah, who studies vaccine hesitancy and scientific misinformation. “The next challenge will be to get the vaccine to the hundreds of millions of people who need it.”

(Fred Hutch’s Dr. Larry Corey, who is co-leading large-scale federal vaccine trials, puts the news in context for this article in The Timmerman Report.)

By all means, celebrate — but safely! Our panelists shared how much they will miss seeing their families during the holidays and offered ideas for staying connected. Clinical psychologist Dr. Karen Syrjala, who usually invites 40 people to Thanksgiving dinner, has scaled it back this year to two (plus Zoom). “I try to take a big-picture view,” she says. “Over the course of my lifetime, I may not even remember missing this Thanksgiving.”

In the Media

A pandemic holiday brings scientific gifts of innovation — The Seattle Times, Nov. 27, 2020
Dr. Larry Corey co-authored and placed an opinion piece in the Seattle Times about COVID-19 vaccines.

Make the necessary sacrifices to avoid an unimaginable catastropheThe Seattle Times, Nov. 19, 2020 
Dr. Joshua Schiffer authored an opinion piece urging the community to take proper COVID-19 precautions, writing: “If we all make the necessary sacrifices, we can save more lives than will be lost. We can all be heroes.”
Also, watch Dr. Schiffer interviewed on Q13.  

Covid complicates Thanksgiving as families struggle to modify 2020 holiday plans — CNBC, Nov. 12, 2020 
Pergam stressed the need for families to rethink holiday gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said, “It’s important to have these conversations with family members now and set expectations.”

Can COVID-19 testing allow us to gather safely for the holidays? — Reuters, Nov. 18, 2020 
Schiffer described how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting his own holiday plans. He said, “Now is the time for delayed gratification. My family pushed back Thanksgiving to the spring and look forward to a safer event at that time.”

Health workers worried about Halloween COVID-19 increases — KIRO 7, Oct. 29, 2020 
Pergam underscored the importance of taking COVID-19 precautions during the holidays. He said, “We have to focus on the short game now. We have to do the right things now for the long term.”


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