Christmas during COVID-19: Don't hug, avoid indoor gatherings, say experts amid fear of surge in cases

During the festive season, India's health ministry has recommended increased testing, targeted testing at markets, workplaces and religious congregations, and increased use of RT-PCR in testing

FP Staff December 09, 2020 18:49:31 IST
Christmas during COVID-19: Don't hug, avoid indoor gatherings, say experts amid fear of surge in cases

Image courtesy: AP

With the festive season upon us, Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned of “any laxity" that "could strain India’s health system”, even as India’s COVID-19 tally rose past 97 lakh cases on Wednesday.

At the onset of the holiday season last month, Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan also said people need to be more vigilant as India celebrates Dussehra, Diwali, Chhath Puja, Christmas and Makar Sankranti among other festivals. The ministry requested states to adopt measures including increased testing, targeted testing at markets, workplaces and religious congregations that could have the potential to become super spreaders, increased use of RT-PCR in testing and compulsory testing of symptomatic RAT negatives, according to The Hindu.

US government’s top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci also said that the Christmas season could pose greater risks of COVID-19 transmission than the Thanksgiving period did. “If we don’t avoid socialising during the upcoming festival season, I fear we will be back to where we started,“ said Dr T Jacob John, a retired virologist. “There is a significant risk ahead of us."

Don’t hug, celebrate outdoors

At a time when people are flocking to markets, religious places and indulge in social gatherings indoors and outdoors, the World Health Organisation has advised people not to hug. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's the technical lead on COVID-19 , told The Associated Press that most transmission happens among people who tend to spend a lot of time together sharing meals and indoor spaces, in workplaces or homes but it is sometimes hard to disentangle how exactly the virus was spread.

UK chief medical officer Chris Whitty also told Britons that they shouldn't hug or kiss their elderly relatives during this year's holiday season if you want them to survive to be hugged again.

Experts also suggested limiting the group size a gatherings and conducting celebrations outdoors. Bloomberg cited experts saying gathering size is a big factor if you want to avoid spreading the virus as each additional person increases the risk that someone will bring the virus to the party. If you double the size of the party, you roughly quadruple the risk of transmission.

The UK government limited a gathering of three households during the festive period, while Scottish government imposing an overall maximum of eight people, not including children under 12 years. Experts quoted by BBC say people from different households sitting opposite each other and speaking face-to-face is another possible route for transmission.

Epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch of Harvard University said for indoor gatherings, ventilation is of paramount importance. A Sage report echoes that infection risk can be four times greater without proper ventilation.

The people in attendance of events is also an important factor to mitigate transmission risks. “If these are people you already see on a daily basis, getting together for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner is probably not a big deal. The opposite is if you’re bringing people you haven’t mixed with, you have to ask what these people’s behaviors are. Does their risk tolerance match yours?” Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security said.

Games during holidays are a common feature, but lead board games and cards can lead to contact between persons, compounding the COVID-19 risk. A BBC report recommended switching to quiz-style games or ones that can be played on personal devices.

Higher preference for car travel

Meanwhile, holiday planners also have to think about whether there are vulnerable people in the group, Purdue University virologist David Sanders added. To travel by car is the safest, as travel by bus, train or planes can increase the chance of exposure when in an enclosed space with strangers for extended periods of time. Wearing masks and distancing from other passengers can help reduce some of that risk, according to Scott A Weisenberg, director of the infectious disease fellowship program at NYU Langone, but it’s not a guarantee of safety.

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