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“Home for the Holidays” Takes on New Meaning in the COVID-19 Era

click to view holiday infographic

The familiar sights, sounds and even smells of the holidays are upon us. TV commercials, gift catalogues, storefront windows and those cinnamon-scented pinecones at the grocery store provide telltale signs that the season is full swing. But as COVID-19 cases surge across the nation, the usual parties and celebrations with friends and family aren’t on the table.

“Not only do we have to contend with the rise in COVID-19 cases, we have to be mindful that it is also flu season,” said PJ Brennan, MD, chief medical officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System. “This means we have to take all necessary precautions to reduce the spread of respiratory illness.”

The new reality of dealing with COVID-19 is pushing us to adjust our lives in ways that we never imagined, Brennan remarked. He advises that when it comes to travel, it is better not to travel for everyone’s health and safety. National experts strongly advise limiting in-person holiday celebrations to those in your own household and linking up with other friends and loved ones virtually.

However, there are some cases where people simply can’t avoid travel this season, such as a college student coming home from campus. For those who must travel, precautions and testing guidance are essential.

If people in this situation are traveling by car, they should limit passengers to those in their own household — carpooling on the ride home with college friends isn’t a good idea. If driving with anyone beyond your usual household members or social "bubble,” wear a mask.

Those who must travel by air, bus or train, should wear a mask while walking through airports and train stations and while flying or riding on trains or buses. If traveling by plane, choose the airline carefully and select those which do not fill middle seats.

Brennan stresses that traveling by anything other than a car poses an increased risk due to the inability to be appropriately distanced from other travelers — even with a mask. Because of the nature of the virus — how it behaves, how it hides, how it presents in so many varied forms (even silently) — traveling for the holidays, even for short visits, is not advised and places your friends and family at increased risk.

“Anyone who must travel should consider whether their destination has requirements for a negative test result within one to three days prior to arrival and/or self-isolation policies upon arrival,” said Krisda Chaiyachati, MD, MPH, MSHP, medical director for Penn Medicine OnDemand and assistant professor of Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine.

In the case of a student or someone else who finds travel unavoidable this season, even if a pre-travel COVID test is negative and they don’t have symptoms, their risk of exposing others to the virus is not zero. Commuting in enclosed spaces such as a plane, bus, or train increases chances for transmission during the trip. They should be vigilant, maintain isolation and distance for the full 14 days after travel, even with a negative test result, to be safe. (Chaiyachati warns that a negative test result, even several days after arrival, can be falsely reassuring. The virus may still silently present itself at any point within 14 days of exposure, and can be contagious to others even without symptoms.)

As requirements and restrictions are changing by the day, it’s important to keep up with the official guidance coming out from state and local governments. For instance, the Pennsylvania Department of Health recently released COVID-19 Information for Travelers. It  requires that travelers entering Pennsylvania from other countries and states, as well as Pennsylvanians who are returning home from other countries or states, must now have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to entering the Commonwealth or quarantine for 14 days upon entry into Pennsylvania. And the city of Philadelphia announced this week that any indoor gatherings involving multiple households are now prohibited in public or private spaces.

But you can still enjoy time “with” family even if you are staying in your own home this holiday season.  For example, with her sister in London, her brother in Beijing and her parents in Seoul, Young Un Cho, a senior consultant in Talent Management and Leadership Development at Penn Medicine, has family holiday plans that will include tools from the digital age and a little extra creativity.

Since the onset COVID-19 and travel restrictions enforced earlier, Cho’s family had some practice with birthdays, holidays — even virtual babysitting. In addition to virtual video chats and digital photo albums, having the ability to surprise her family with special gifts this holiday season is also part of the fun. “I think it’s so cool to be able to push a couple of buttons and all of a sudden my sister’s getting a package with all of her favorite foods delivered right to her door,” Cho remarked.   

She says she feels lucky to have advanced technology at her disposal; in a way, she says, it has brought people closer together and forced us to think differently. Once it is safe to resume traveling near and far, Cho looks forward to seeing her globally dispersed family. In the meantime, she’s putting her optimism and imagination to work to make sure the joy of the season is still in tow.

Stay tuned for more examples and tips for safer — yet still fun —  virtual observances this holiday season in the next post on the Penn Medicine News Blog.

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Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the related Department(s), University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

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