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Superspreader Events and Small Gatherings: COVID-19 Safety Tips

Visual representation of the spread of COVID-19.
Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go… or not? With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to sweep the globe and numbers of people infected higher than ever before, our infectious disease experts have some advice: Stay home, stay safe. We encourage everyone to avoid superspreader events and modify holiday and celebratory gatherings with family and friends to slow the spread of the virus. 

What Is a Superspreader?

A superspreader event occurs when one highly contagious person infects an unusually high number of others. Scientists don’t yet know what causes some people who carry the virus to transmit it so easily. Although we aren’t currently able to diagnose someone as a “super spreader”, we can limit their impact with contact tracing and isolation. 

Contact tracing alerts those who may have been exposed to COVID-19, prompting them to monitor potential symptoms and get tested. It helps identify those who may be carrying the virus and helps to slow the spread by encouraging self-isolation. You can help with contract-tracing by downloading the COVID Alert app in your state, which will notify you if you've been near someone with COVID-19. The more people who use the app, the more it will help prevent community spread. 

Most of all: You can avoid being a super spreader and being infected by one by staying home, social-distancing and staying away from people who aren't in your household. 

Avoid Superspreader Events

Caroling with a few close friends is safe, right? Not necessarily. Even small gatherings can cause widespread infection. You may have seen news headlines about superspreader events, like choir practices and birthday parties that triggered a domino effect of COVID-19 cases. These events often happen indoors in enclosed spaces without good ventilation—another risk factor for spreading the virus.

What’s more, many people with COVID-19 show no symptoms for up to two weeks. While you and your loved ones don’t want to get each other sick, you could be unaware that you’re doing exactly that. 

Think Twice About Small Gatherings

Intimate events may seem safer than crowded venues like concert halls or sports arenas. But small in-person gatherings can be risky if your attendees represent different households with unique exposure profiles. Even seeing just a few people who don’t live with you can make you more vulnerable to the virus.

Who is part of your household? Depending on where you live, it might include family members, roommates or others who share common spaces in your housing unit. Your neighbor down the street and your aunt who lives out of state aren’t part of your household because they aren’t in regular proximity with you. The same goes for our animal counterparts. We’re still learning how the virus affects pets, but it’s wise not to let them interact with people outside the household.

Before you invite your best friends over to decorate holiday cookies, remember that one person who sneezes near the frosting might expose your entire group of friends. And then those friends expose everyone they come in contact with, and so on. 

To lower the risk of spread, plan a video chat to celebrate virtually—or limit your gathering to your own household members. 

How to Celebrate Safely

Here are some risk factors to consider when you’re making plans to host or attend a gathering:

  • Community levels of COVID-19: You’re at higher risk for spreading the virus if the gathering location, or the areas your attendees are traveling from, are coronavirus hotspots. Check your local health department website for the number of COVID-19 cases in your community.
  • Location and length of the event: Indoor gatherings in enclosed spaces without fresh air are riskier than outdoor events. Longer events also pose more risk. Spending even 15 cumulative minutes near an infected person increases your chance of getting sick.
  • Number and crowding of attendees: Bigger events still pose more risk than smaller ones. Consider keeping your holiday gathering to the number of people who can safely stay 6 feet apart, wear masks, and follow local health and safety laws.
  • Hygiene of attendees before and during the event: Being vigilant with social distancing, mask-wearing and handwashing decreases the risk of spread. Substances like alcohol and drugs can impact your guests’ judgment and make it harder for them to follow safety guidelines.

Whether you’re a guest or host, staying proactive is your best defense. Keep tabs on the local COVID-19 case numbers to make informed decisions about whether to hold or attend events. Limiting your number of attendees, holding outdoor events, wearing masks and thoroughly and frequently washing hands are all smart ways to limit the spread. Here are a few more tips from the CDC:

  • Communicate in advance: Share your safety guidelines with guests. Consider asking them to limit contact with those outside their households for 14 days beforehand.
  • Take the noise down a notch: Encourage guests to avoid singing or shouting, especially indoors. Keep music levels down so people don’t have to shout or speak loudly.
  • Stock up on supplies: Offer extra (brand-new) masks, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol and tissues. Stock bathrooms with enough hand soap and single-use towels.
  • Avoid crowding: Limit foot traffic around areas like the kitchen or around the grill. Have one person serve food onto dishes and avoid crowded buffet and drink stations.
  • Avoid potluck-style gatherings: Ask your guests to bring food and drinks for themselves and members of their own household.
  • Clean as you go: Limit contact with commonly touched surfaces or shared items, such as serving utensils, and clean them between uses. Wash cloth napkins and tablecloths right away, and clean dishes with hot soapy water.
  • Toss the trash: Use touchless garbage cans, wear gloves when handling trash and wash hands after removing gloves.

How to Stay Safe When Traveling

Travel can increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. You can pick up the virus in the air and on surfaces at airports, bus stations, train stations, public transport, gas stations and rest stops. 

Postponing travel offers the best chance of protecting yourself and others. If you haven’t decided yet, consider these questions from the CDC. If you answer “yes” to any of them, consider delaying your trip or hosting a virtual gathering instead.

  • Are you, someone in your household or someone you will be visiting at increased risk for getting very sick from COVID-19?
  • Are cases high or increasing in your community or your destination? 
  • Are hospitals in your community or your destination overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases? (State and local public health department websites track this information.)
  • Does your home or destination have requirements or restrictions for travelers? 
  • During the 14 days before your travel, have you or those you are visiting had close contact with people they don’t live with?
  • Do your travel plans allow you to stay six feet apart from others?
  • Are you traveling with people who don’t live with you?

If you opt to travel, prepare for the possibility of you or someone else becoming sick during the visit. It’s smart to think through your plans for isolation, medical care and travel home.

Bringing It All Together

Whether you’re in a festive mood this season or simply celebrating the end of a challenging year, staying on guard against coronavirus will help you stay as safe as possible. With extra planning and precautions, you can help ensure the only thing you’re spreading is holiday cheer.
 

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