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Getting together this holiday season? Here are some pro tips on gathering safely.

Family gathers for the holidays
Photo courtesy of Pexels.

Many of us can’t wait to catch up with friends and loved ones this holiday season, COVID-19 experts included.

“I look forward to connecting with family that I haven’t seen in over 18 months,” says Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “Since we are not out of the woods with COVID-19 yet, we will take precautions so that we can enjoy being together with peace of mind.”

We asked Meyers and other UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium experts to share tips for celebrating more safely while having fun.

They recommend these six steps for making your holiday gatherings safer:

1. Get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at protecting people from severe infections, and they are now available to everybody over age 5. “My family has openly discussed the risks and options for keeping things safe. I’m grateful that we are up to date on our COVID-19 vaccines — everyone over 5 has received at least one dose, and everyone over 65 has had three,” Meyers says. You don’t need health insurance to get vaccinated, and the shots are always free. You can find more information at the Texas Department of State Health Services website.

2. Get boosted as soon as you are eligible

The experts encourage those who can get boosted to do so sooner rather than later. Kaiming Bi, a consortium researcher, explains the impact of waning vaccine efficacy: “It means that people who were vaccinated early in the rollout may again be vulnerable to getting infected and possibly developing life-threatening symptoms.” A booster quickly renews immunity and can be lifesaving, particularly for high-risk individuals planning to gather indoors in large groups.

3. Take rapid tests before gathering

COVID-19 is stealthy. It can infect vaccinated and unvaccinated people, and people can be contagious without ever developing symptoms. Testing everyone before a gathering can catch silent cases so they don’t have a chance to infect others. Michael Lachmann, a UT consortium collaborator at the Santa Fe Institute, says he is still cautious about large gatherings. “The risk of someone becoming infected at an event with 20 people is four times higher than at an event with 10 people,” Lachmann says. He recommends making a backup plan in case somebody tests positive or comes down with symptoms at the last minute. “Think about how you will keep everyone else safe.”

4. Wear a mask when traveling and in public spaces, especially if local COVID numbers are high

The consortium’s latest analyses suggest that the delta variant continues to spread widely and that Austin is at risk for a resurgence this winter. “Vaccines and boosters are saving lives, but we are not yet risk-free,” explains David Morton, the chair of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences at Northwestern University, “and face masks continue to be one of the most effective ways to protect ourselves and others.” To track COVID-19 trends around Texas, visit the UT consortium dashboard or the Texas Department of State Health Services dashboard.

5. Dine outside — it’s always a good idea

Emily Javan, a graduate student at UT Austin, looks forward to shopping and dining alfresco. “If you’re heading out to the bars, find uncrowded rooftops and patios where there is ample circulation and great views of the city,” Javan says. “Open-air markets are also a great option for holiday shopping and supporting local businesses.” She adds, “If you are gathering with family members who are older or at high risk, it makes sense to exercise extra caution in the days leading up to the festivities.”

6. Stay home if you or someone in your household has concerning symptoms or tests positive

When in doubt, test or stay home. Even mild symptoms may be cause for concern. If you test positive, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, isolate yourself so you do not infect others and notify anyone you may have already exposed in the days leading up to your positive test.

The sooner you discuss these six simple steps with your family, the better. “This is a great opportunity to encourage your loved ones to vaccinate and help them understand how rapid testing can be used as a valuable day-of-event safety check,” Meyers says.

If not everyone agrees to take these steps and you still want to gather, here is some additional calorie-free food for thought from the consortium:

  • Let your other guests know the risks.
  • Move your celebrations outdoors, weather permitting.
  • Encourage the group to wear masks during the festivities, except while eating and drinking.

As COVID-19 continues to cast a long shadow, the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium hopes these simple tips brighten your holiday season.