Baby, it's COVID outside - and the holidays are here

The COVID-19 infection rate has been skyrocketing in Illinois since October. Now, like the Grinch, it’s coming for Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s, Festivus and the rest of the holiday season, too. Is there anything we can do to stop it?

COVID-19 is getting worse this winter because the virus spreads through respiratory droplets between people who are in close contact (about six feet or two arm lengths). When someone talks, breathes, coughs, sneezes or sings, they release these particles into the air, where they can then be inhaled by others. In indoor environments without good ventilation, those particles can remain suspended in the air and even travel beyond six feet.

During the summer and fall, we could all go outside where the open space, ventilation and humidity helped prevent the virus from spreading. Those safeguards are vanishing as the temperature drops and we increasingly spend time indoors.

The best way to keep your holidays COVID-free is to abide by the Illinois Department of Public Health recommendations. To help ensure the highest level of safety:

• Stay at home with your immediate family

• Do not travel

• Do not invite others to travel to you or stay overnight

• Reconsider hosting or attending parties in person

We also advise that you do your holiday shopping online and avoid high concentrations of people, i.e., shopping on Christmas Eve

Let’s be real here: I realize that these suggestions are a major break from what all of us look forward to during this time of year. Many will be unable to completely resist the comforts of family dinners, gift exchanges and begging neighbors for whatever wassail is. So if you can’t be persuaded to stay home and celebrate the season virtually, at the very least lower your risk factors with these practical safety tips when planning holiday festivities:

• Limit your guest list to 10 people at most (including yourself and your immediate family) who live nearby. Connect with everyone else virtually via Zoom, FaceTime and similar apps. Limit your event to two to three hours. The lower everyone’s exposure time, the better.

• Encourage guests to wear masks by making a game of it. Host an “ugly sweater” mask-decorating contest. Post the results on Instagram throughout the evening.

• As much as possible, focus your guests within the largest rooms and space the seating between family groups at least six feet apart. Remove chairs to create empty spaces at the table and stagger the seating to the extent that you can. Assign seating for each guest.

• Go outside between dinner and dessert. Have a snowball fight or even just a walk around the block. This will allow time for people to breathe fresh air while allowing respiratory droplets inside the house to settle. It will also help create more appetite for dessert.

• Designate one or two people for kitchen duty. These people should be the only ones allowed in the kitchen to prepare and plate the food, as well as clean up afterward. Wear masks and plastic gloves.

Present food in individual servings only. Use single-use utensils and dishes. Clearly label or differentiate everyone’s drinks. As an extra precaution, you might want to invest in insulated drinking vessels with a cover.

— Dr. Sharon Rosenberg practices internal medicine with Amita Health.