The holiday season is rapidly approaching, and as families and friends prepare to eat, drink and celebrate together, staying safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic is still something we have to be mindful of as our list of party invites starts to grow.
As more and more Canadians get their COVID vaccines (77.97 per cent of the population has received at least one dose of their vaccine as of Nov. 15, 2021), there’s hope that this year, gatherings will look and feel a lot more normal. However, there’s still vaccine hesitancy among some family members and friends, including those who may be immunocompromised or unable to receive their shots due to other health reasons, which makes it difficult to start planning your celebrations in a way that makes everyone feel safe.
In order to help answer your most pressing COVID questions as we get ready for holiday gatherings again, we spoke to Dr. Kumanan Wilson, a senior scientist for the clinical epidemiology program at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. He shared his tips on how to talk to vaccine-hesitant relatives during the holidays, how to uninvite someone from your holiday bash and safety tips for planning a gathering with the virus variants.
What is vaccine etiquette — and how would you define it for someone who has never heard the term before?
It’s obviously a very sensitive topic these days [with] vaccination status causing a bit of a divide, sometimes within families and amongst friends. I think, from a public health perspective, the actual etiquette is doing what you can; it’s in the best interests of yourself, of your family, of your friends. And it’s actually doing what’s in the best interest of those who aren’t vaccinated, because they’re actually the ones who are at risk.
How can you ask if people are vaccinated before a gathering? What are some dos and don’ts?
It’s not necessarily to be judgmental, but to indicate the reason the question is being asked is actually to protect them. They may disagree, but the way [the vaccine is] working with [the Delta variant] is that you are protected if you’re vaccinated, but there is a certain percentage that could harbour the virus. And if an unvaccinated person comes into contact with them, they could contract the disease, and they could be seriously ill and they may spread it to other people whom they associated with who are unvaccinated. So the real reason for asking the question is to make sure to protect the person who’s not vaccinated, and make sure that you’re not exposing them to risk. And I think if it’s done in that frame as opposed to chastising them for not being vaccinated, [and explaining] that this is a decision being made in everybody’s best interest.
How do you uninvite someone to a holiday party if they aren’t vaccinated?
I think the best approach is to be very honest, straightforward and safe, that yes, this is a decision that is being made with our best understanding right now of what’s going to be needed to protect the health of everyone, including, in particular, that guest who is not vaccinated. I would simply say that it’s not safe for that individual to be here; it’s for their own protection. They may not agree. There’s a bit of an analogy that could explain it: if someone’s drinking at a party and you don’t let them drive home. It’s simply not safe. It’s an awkward situation, it’s an awkward decision and they may feel that they’re safe, but you have to make that decision on their behalf. And then in this case, if it’s a large gathering indoors where some people who are vaccinated can asymptomatically harbour the virus, it wouldn’t be safe for that unvaccinated person to be there.
What are some tips for gathering with people when you’re unsure of their vaccination status?
The two best things we can do in indoor spaces when we aren’t sure of that person’s status is to wear a mask or ensure there’s good ventilation. Good ventilation can be having the windows open. Ventilation systems would be ideal systems. But those are the two important things. So enclosed spaces where there’s not great air circulation, where there are crowds of people where some may be unvaccinated, those are high-risk settings.
What are the best practices for having a holiday gathering indoors with the variants going around?
There has been a change in the virus with the variant. At the outset, if you were vaccinated against the original version, it’s unlikely you could spread the virus asymptomatically to someone else. And I think what’s really changed now is that can happen. And so it really shifts now that the reason we’re doing this is to protect the unvaccinated, and I know I’ve said that several times, but we’ve seen what’s happening in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the unfortunate stories. And I think Delta has changed the dynamic and we need to protect those who aren’t vaccinated or else [they will get] very sick in some cases, and they’re spreading it to others who are unvaccinated. I think that’s a major change with Delta. It’s also very transmissible, like chickenpox, essentially, it’s that infectious, so it can spread fast. And this again, puts those who are not protected, at a really increased risk.
What should people who are pregnant be worried about when it comes to gatherings?
Obviously, the vaccine has been recommended for pregnant women, and it’s so far been identified to be quite safe. And that’s very good news. We are going to find out soon [about] vaccinating under 12, five to 11 age range; mothers will likely have children in that age range. And I think that’s going to be an important decision and process to go through, to make sure those children are protected if the data is good, which it looks like it’s suggested that it’s going to be.
And then also, I think in the same vein, we do have older members of our families, and particularly those living in long-term care homes and hospice settings. There’s some evidence that immunity may be waning in six months after [their] second dose, and that they may need boosters that they’ve been recommended. Those individuals are at risk of coming into contact with unvaccinated younger children. So I think that’s just something to keep in mind. If you’re not sure they have received a booster status and you have [a child] under 12 who’s not vaccinated, you may want to restrict the contact until they’re vaccinated.
What should we remember as the holidays get closer?
When we do the right thing, when we wear masks, when we have ventilation indoors and we get vaccinated, it looks like we have been successful and getting this under control. So it means that we can go back to the semblance of our normal lives, but we need to do the right thing.
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