Two virologists give practical advice for reducing your exposure to COVID-19 this Christmas.
First published in December 2020.
It’s Christmas 2020 and COVID-19 is unfortunately still here. Many people will be visiting loved ones, including vulnerable family members.
So, to try to keep our loved ones safe during this festive period, there are two questions we need to answer: what’s the best thing to do for me and my family this Christmas? And if we gather with others, what’s the safest way to do so?
The safest Christmas is within one household
Under the UK government’s new rules, three households can form a “Christmas bubble” from December 23 to December 27. Your bubble can mix indoors and have overnight stays.
However, we now know that most transmission of coronavirus happens indoors, particularly in crowded and poorly ventilated rooms.
We all know how warm and crowded a family Christmas can be, and few people open their windows in late December. This means that a traditional family Christmas is a high risk for virus transmission. Santa should stay safe, however, as he always comes through the well-ventilated chimneys and only visits houses when everyone is asleep.
Also, consider who you might invite to your Christmas bubble. Many adults we know will be in the high-risk category. Relatives over the age of 60, those with existing health conditions, and smokers are most likely to suffer severe disease or death from COVID.
At the other end of the age scale, young children pose a different risk. Though the role of children in spreading coronavirus is still being researched and debated, we know that children can spread coronavirus to others.
Young children are more likely to have poorer hygiene and often struggle to obey social distancing rules. So even though children may not get sick themselves with COVID-19, they may spread it between adults in attendance.
So, disappointingly, the only way to have a truly COVID-safe this Christmas is to avoid meeting other households indoors at all, and have your celebrations inside your own home. You could have activities online, or meet outdoors – but socially distanced, of course.
It is important to remember that the pandemic won’t last forever. With effective vaccines arriving, we may have a “normal” Christmas next year. If you want to maximise your chance of spending time with your entire family next year, it may be wiser to remain apart for this one.
Wear masks whenever possible when indoors. | StockSnap
If we must visit family, how should we do it?
It is Christmas after all, and the fear of being alone on Christmas Day is just too great a burden for many. With that in mind, we need to be aware of the precautions we should take when meeting family members to reduce the spread of the virus during the festive period.
First, we should all try to wear masks whenever possible when indoors with our loved ones. There is now good evidence that masks reduce the spread of coronavirus from an infected person to others.
When wearing a mask isn’t practical, such as during Christmas dinner, keeping physical distance from members of other households massively reduces the risk of virus spread. Whether that is sitting at either end of the dining table, on separate sofas, or even in different rooms.
The important thing is that any kind of distance at all between you and your loved ones helps mitigate the risk of spread, with greater distance equalling lower risk.
Although it’s starting to get very cold outside, you might want to consider opening some windows in your house if you have guests coming over. Ventilation can be just as important as all the other measures described here at stopping the spread of COVID.
Opening a couple of windows in the room your guests are using once they arrive, and for a short time after they’ve left, can help stop the virus spreading. In addition, try to keep guests in as few rooms as possible to prevent the virus spreading around your entire home.
Also, this year it would be a good idea to go to turn the volume on your music down. When we raise our voices at all to talk over any noise in the room, we greatly increase the production of respiratory droplets from our mouths, which is exactly how the virus spreads. Unfortunately, this means that carol singing is out this year, though maybe in the case of your family, you think that’s a good thing.
Finally, when around your loved ones, remember to wash your hands, especially after touching around your mouth and nose. And, importantly, remember to wash your hands before handling food or drink for others, and especially after you’ve coughed or sneezed. Viruses can be transferred from your face to your hands and then to a family member without you even realising it.
Try to refrain from sharing things between your family, such as bowls of crisps, tins of sweets or plates of food. Washing your hands with warm water and soap is all it takes to clean the virus away and keep your family safe.🔷
Dr Grace C. Roberts, Virologist, Research Fellow in Virology, Queen's University Belfast. Her current research investigates the relationship between respiratory virus infections and the development of asthma.
Dr David Courtney, Postdocotoral Research Fellow in Molecular Virology, Queen's University Belfast.