COVID-19 Risk to Family Around Holidays

Alternative Celebrations Encouraged for Older People

Quick Summary

  • UC Davis Health experts say a party this year could be deadly for those you hold most dear
  • Still, older people in particular may crave the contact, so think about connecting by phone or computer — or maybe even a letter or card
  • If you’re going to have a gathering anyway, our experts have tips on how to stay safer

Slimmed down or canceled celebrations this holiday season may be particularly hard on older people, but the alternative could be worse. A family gathering could risk their lives, two UC Davis Health experts said on UC Davis LIVE, Nov. 19.

“It may seem dramatic for us to sit here and say the greatest gift you can give is life and not kill your family member or loved one, but that is the reality,” said Natascha Tuznik, assistant clinical professor of infectious diseases. “People are saying, ‘I’m tired and I want to get together,’ but that is a risk you have to consider.”

COVID-19 is raging across California and the United States, with infection rates exploding to record levels — right as the holidays are coming and people want to gather with friends and families. But a holiday party or meal could be deadly for the people you care about, especially if they are older, Tuznik said.

“The risks are substantial right now. We’re seeing the highest case rates since the pandemic started,” she said. “I understand COVID fatigue. I have it, too. Being asked to batten down the hatches for a few more months is hard. But the best way to celebrate your family is to stay apart.”

Family members in face masks, at a distance
“You have to weigh all the risks very carefully,” especially when older adults are involved. (iStock)

Tuznik and Terri Harvath, director of the Family Caregiving Institute at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, urged people to see this as a one-time sacrifice.

“This may be the only holiday season in our lives that we’re asked to practice all these precautions,” Harvath said. “Don’t see this as a forever change to our traditions that so many of us love and look forward to. Instead, think about how we can modify those traditions, maybe in a virtual way.”

Keep connected to older adults

Changing the celebrations, but keeping some version of them, may be most important to older adults, especially those who are more isolated. It can be just as important to the family members who care for them.


“It’s really important to be reaching out to these older adults and their caregivers,” Harvath said. “The social isolation COVID-19 has caused is a serious problem and something we need to pay attention to. We know that social isolation is related to both physical and mental health problems.”

For people who care for an older family member in their home, COVID-19 restrictions have often meant lost resources from community organizations and lost help from other family or friends.

“Unfortunately, older adults and their caregivers have borne a disproportionate burden of COVID-19,” Harvath said. “They have higher rates of morbidity and mortality. They’ve also not been first in line for getting resources.”

She suggested doing whatever we can to keep a social connection to older family members and their caregivers through phone calls, virtual gatherings, packages and even going old school. “Send cards and letters,” Harvath said. “Remember, your older family members have done that their whole lives.”

Assessing the risk of a gathering

Both Harvath and Tuznik start with this advice for any gathering with people outside your household: Don’t. But with older adults, the decision gets complicated.

On one hand, there may be only a few more opportunities to gather for them. On the other, they are most vulnerable to any exposure to COVID-19, which is spreading rapidly throughout the U.S. population.

“You do have to weigh all the risks very carefully,” Harvath said. “After every holiday, we’ve seen spikes in transmission, and all of those were during months when we could gather outdoors. The increased risk of being indoors (where there is much less airflow and it’s much harder to physically distance) is enormous.”

To help decide if you’ll visit, the Gerontological Society of America has a survey tool that asks questions ranging from how rare is this opportunity to what is most important to you in making this decision.

Older man looks at device screen, for online gathering.
A “Zoomgiving” may be the safest Thanksgiving of all this year. (iStock)

How to stay safer if you do gather

“People are calling it Zoomgiving,” Tuznik said. “Some people are even making a place setting for their computer. If you want to be totally safe, virtual is the way.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just released new guidelines that also warn about Thanksgiving and holiday gatherings.


“If you have to do it, there are at least some things you can do to stay safer,” Tuznik said. “And make sure everybody is on board and everybody follows through. That’s really hard to do. Will there be zero risk? No. You will still all be at risk even if you follow everything to a T.”

Her suggestions include:

  • Keep the gathering small. Maybe six people, maximum.
  • Keep it outside, weather permitting.
  • If you are inside, open doors and windows for more airflow.
  • Bring your own food, utensils and even salad dressing. “As far as we know, there is no transmission related to food,” Tuznik said. “The issue is congregating around the food.”
  • Work to keep a physical distance — and remember when people drink, they forget or lose inhibitions.
  • Wear face coverings whether you’re indoors or outside, when you’re not eating or drinking. “Make sure they’re not loose and hanging,” she said.

“Remember, no hugs, no kisses, just wave at everyone,” Tuznik said. “If there’s an uncle or aunt who says, ‘I’m not going to wear a mask and I’m not going to go along,’ then don’t have them at your house. They’ll mess it up for everyone else.”

Tuznik said that even if everyone at the gathering has tested negative for COVID-19, it is still no guarantee that you’re risk free because tests are a snapshot of someone’s infectiousness at the moment.

“The only way to be certain would be for everyone to quarantine for 14 days,” she said.

“Remember, no hugs, no kisses, just wave at everyone. “If there’s an uncle or aunt who says, ‘I’m not going to wear a mask and I’m not going to go along,’ then don’t have them at your house. They’ll mess it up for everyone else.” — Natascha Tuznik

Harvath said she is feeling what many others feel: She misses her family. But she won’t see them this Thanksgiving.

“My mom is staying home. My daughter is not going to come. I’m not accepting any invitations,” she said. “The biggest gift we can give to family or friends is the reduction of exposure to something that can make them very sick or kill them.”

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