HONOLULU – The holiday season is here. For most people, the last few weeks of the year are a time to reconnect with family and friends during Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve celebrations, among others.
However, due to COVID-19, this year’s holiday season will look different for most people.
Things like traveling and gathering in larger groups are not recommended due to the health risks associated with the global pandemic.
To help slow the spread of COVID-19 this season, Lt. Col. Ronald Cole, Public Health Command-Pacific’s Human Health Services director, shared tips and advice to help keep you and your loved ones safe this season.
“This holiday season is like none other,” said Cole. “We have governmental restrictions that have never been in place before. It is important to consider the reasoning behind these restrictions seriously, and we need to make sure we are all celebrating the holidays as safely as possible.”
To help celebrate this year’s festivities safely, Cole suggested service members and families continue to follow all recommended Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and government mandates.
“It is still very important that we remember limiting gatherings to five people, making sure people from outside your household are six feet apart, everyone is wearing masks and PPE, making sure everyone frequently washes their hands for at least 20 seconds, and if someone is sick not having them physically attend the gathering,” said Cole.
Cole recommended that service members and families limit introducing new people to their social circles.
“Any additions to your social group will drastically increase your risk of COVID transmission,” Cole explained. “Now more than ever it is vital to maintain those boundaries and measures that have kept you safe in place. The holidays this year should look different than other years.
“I don’t want to say this is the new normal, but this is where we are for now and should remain vigilant, if we plan to beat COVID-19,” Cole added.
For some, COVID-19 has become an exhausting experience, as more people feel fatigued from COVID-19 restrictions and mandates.
“COVID fatigue is similar to someone dealing with a chronic illness or someone dealing with something stressful over a long period of time,” explained Cole. “We have been dealing with increasing and decreasing constraints on movement and periods of isolation for nine months now. It is extremely exhausting on people both mentally and physically, but we need to keep following guidelines no matter how exhausting they feel.”
Cole recommended that people think beyond their individual circumstances and health as motivation to keep following guidelines.
“For individuals considering to ignore the current guidelines I would encourage them to consider the costs; not just to yourself, but to your family members, those that are around and in your local community,” Cole warned. “You don’t want to be that person that exposes others to COVID-19 and potentially cause health problems in others or a potential fatality. It isn’t worth the few hours of fun not wearing a mask or following social distancing guidelines.”
In addition to COVID fatigue, Cole pointed out that depression is another serious concern.
“In normal years, the holidays have been known to cause stress and depression,” explained Cole. “However, this year, the pandemic can exacerbate depression, making it a more challenging year for individuals with mental health disorders.”
According to the CDC, public health actions such as social distancing can make people feel isolated and alone and can increase stress and anxiety. Additionally, individuals experiencing financial issues, job loss, the death of a loved one, or changes to routines such as teleworking or helping children with e-learning, can be at an increased risk for depression.
“The most important thing you can do if you are feeling fatigue or depression is self-care,” said Cole. “That means investing in yourself, setting boundaries, and seeking help if possible.”
Cole recommended finding a healthy outlet or reaching out to get help.
“Make time for yourself and unplug. Find something that interests you that you enjoy, whether it is reading or working out,” said Cole. “Secondly, find someone that you can truly trust and connect with them. Having someone to talk to is an important outlet. If you need more serious help or you don’t have anyone available to talk to, reach out and call a help line. Just know that you are not alone in your feelings this year, there are a lot people who can relate to you.”
Cole also recommended that military leaders have a plan this year to make sure single Soldiers and other service members are not alone during the holidays.
“Military leaders and supervisors should do an assessment of who is not traveling and who may be alone, and ensure those individuals have an outlet,” said Cole. “It’s important that we have an open door for Soldiers to come in and join smaller groups so that they are not alone whether they have behavioral health issues or not. No one should be alone during this time.”
While small social groups may be a safe option for some single military members, one of the ways everyone can stay connected this holiday season is by celebrating virtually, Cole said.
“Virtual gatherings have been the new way of connecting with people this year,” said Cole. “It gives you an opportunity to actually see loved ones from the nose down. While you can’t physically reach out and touch them, you can still see their face and share smiles and moments together during holiday celebrations.”
Even though connecting virtually is the safest option to spend time with loved ones, some people, like college students and military members, may still need to travel this season.
“People should really only travel this season out of necessity,” Cole emphasized. “There are certain situations, such as college students having to leave their dorms over break that may force them to go home. In those situations it’s important to be smart about traveling.”
The CDC recommends that travelers get tested for COVID-19 with a viral test one to three days before a trip, as well as getting tested three to five days after travel. The CDC also recommends that people reduce non-essential activities for a full seven days after travel, even if their test is negative.
Additionally, the CDC advises travelers to stay at least six feet away from anyone who did not travel with them, particularly in crowded areas. Wear a mask, wash hands often or use hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol, and avoid being around people who are at increased risk for severe illness.
When it comes to traveling, Cole suggested travelers should consider driving instead of flying whenever possible.
“In regards to COVID-19 and traveling, driving is a safer mode of travel if you need to travel this year,” said Cole. “When traveling in a vehicle, you are usually in the car with someone you know. Just take the recommended precautions when making stops for gas, food, or restrooms.”
As travelers reach their destinations, Cole warned that they should think about possible exposure to vulnerable family members.
“Travelers need to ensure they are keeping their loved ones safe as they are returning home and likewise for the family members that are receiving them,” said Cole. “It is important to be aware of what you did prior to traveling, and then having an honest conversation about your travels, pre-travel arrangements, and if there was a test done.
“Travelers and families should take necessary precautions to minimize the potential for exposure. That may include wearing a mask at home around family members who are not regularly around each other and maintaining social distancing,” Cole added.
One of the most vulnerable groups of people for COVID-19 are elderly family members. For elderly relatives in care facilities Cole recommended finding alternative ways to visit with them this year.
“So, every new person going into a care facility will increase the risk of exposure to not just your loved one, but other people’s loved ones,” Cole explained. “This year, it is best to coordinate with the staff of those facilities to visit with your loved one, whether it’s through video chat, a phone call, or even coming up to a window to say hello. Reach out to them, but do so in a way that doesn’t put the elderly and most vulnerable at risk.”
While all of these guidelines can seem a bit discouraging and daunting this holiday season, Cole reminded service members and Families that prioritizing safety still needs to be something everyone continues to focus on this winter.
“Even though it’s the holidays, we still need to be as vigilant as possible to combat COVID-19,” said Cole. “While vaccines are soon going to be available for emergency use in certain areas throughout the Indo-Pacific, it will still be awhile before everyone can get vaccinated, so COVID is not going anywhere anytime soon.
“We all must continue to do our part to slow the spread,” Cole said.
For more information on how you can stop the spread of COVID-19 this holiday season visit: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays/winter.html