Thanksgiving during the pandemic

How to Vote and Celebrate the Holidays Safely During the Pandemic

October 30, 2020

The CUIMC Newsroom spoke with Sandra Albrecht, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and one of the experts behind Dear Pandemic, about how we can vote and celebrate the holidays this year while practicing good public health and staying safe from COVID.

The election is happening. Is it safe to vote?

This is something that is specific to everyone's individual situation. It's also going to depend on the levels of community transmission in your neighborhood in your particular area. 

For people who, for example, are in high risk categories, or categories for high risk for severe consequences for COVID, these are folks who may want to consider mailing in the ballot and not going in person to vote. 

But for other people, in-person voting is the way to go. It's a way to be connected to the community. I plan to vote in person on election day. I live in an area where community rates of transmission are now getting under control again, thankfully. 

And there are things we can do to reduce the risk from in-person voting. We can all wear masks. We can try to maintain distance from other people when we're going in to vote. And then once we have voted, the key is to leave and not congregate. 

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Is it safe to travel back home for Thanksgiving and the holidays? Is there any way to even have a safe holiday gathering this year?

This one's really hard. It's one of my favorite holidays. And every time I get together with family for Thanksgiving, it's a lot of people, it's a huge group of people all indoors, talking, shouting, all in a good way. But unfortunately, the event of Thanksgiving involves a lot of risk factors for COVID transmission: The meals and activities are happening indoors; we usually have a lot of people; it's also multigenerational, with older individuals engaging with younger people. 

There are ways that we still encourage people to celebrate the holiday, but it's going to have to be done a little differently this year. We are encouraging smaller celebrations, with not as many people as other years, ideally only among the people in your household. People who are able to have their Thanksgiving event outdoors, or in a place where there is more ventilation, that helps to lower risk. 

In terms of travel, if you're able to celebrate with other people who are closer by, that's better. If you have to travel farther, we're not saying don't do it, but what we are saying is that you have to keep in mind the risk that's going to be involved. One of the factors to keep in mind is what is the level of community transmission where I am, what's the level of community transmission in the area that I'm going? That's important, because that can determine whether you may be introducing COVID into the household you're going to. Where there's low levels of transmission, it's a little safer.

Kids are getting a little stir crazy. They want to see their friends, they are tired of looking at a computer. Do you have any tips?

Yes, I can offer some advice based on what I've been trying to do. We try to see a small, consistent group of kids on a regular basis—what we've been calling, during pandemic times, pods or bubbles. So, we see just one or two other kids on a regular basis and set up play dates outside, which is a setting where the risk of transmission is lower. It's not zero, but it's lower. 

And keep talking to the kids. Acknowledge that this sucks for everybody and it's really hard. Help them understand that the reason we're doing this is to prevent people from coming down with COVID and losing our loved ones from COVID.

How would you talk to a family member who refuses to wear a mask and doesn't take social distancing seriously?

If you're worried, we really do recommend not going to Thanksgiving events that are going to involve a lot of other people. And especially with a lot of people who have not been adhering to COVID safety guidelines. This is hard and, again, this is something that people are going to have to think about for their own situation. 

If I'm seeing family for the holidays, should I get a flu shot first?

I think getting a flu shot in general is a really good idea and, this year, all the more so. The big problem with COVID, on top of the severe consequences associated with it, is the impact on the hospital systems. Even in non-COVID years, hospitals are impacted by people with flu and flu complications. This year, we're facing what we call a “twindemic," with flu and COVID both burdening our hospital system. So, one way to limit the impact on hospitals is for everyone to get a flu shot. 

View the full Q&A video on Instagram

Learn more about Dear Pandemic here