Health experts are warning that the holiday season poses an increased COVID-19 threat to older Americans, who are already one of the most vulnerable demographics.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1 million coronavirus cases have been reported since Nov. 23, despite recommendations that people forgo traveling for Thanksgiving and limit celebrations to members of their household.
But many are still holding family gatherings outside the CDC guidelines with people in the high-risk 65-and-up age group.
“As a geriatrician, it really scares me,” said Mariah Robertson, a Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center geriatric medicine and gerontology educator fellow. “We’re going to see a lot more older adults in the hospital and a lot more older adults dying as a result of some of these gatherings and some of this travel that people are doing.”
“I anticipate that we’ll see in the next two weeks [after Thanksgiving] an even higher spike in cases across the country because people are gathering and traveling,” she added. “We’ll see something similar near the Christmas holiday for similar reasons.”
She noted there is usually a two-week lag before the effects of social gatherings on infection rates are shown.
According to the CDC, eight out of 10 of the coronavirus deaths reported in the United States have been in adults 65 and older. Seniors accounted for 190,964 of the 240,213 reported coronavirus deaths as of Wednesday, the CDC said.
Christine E. Kistler, an associate professor of geriatric and family medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and research committee member of the American Geriatric Society, identified large gatherings as a key risk factor in the upcoming holiday season that will contribute to an increase in cases.
Even mitigation efforts like getting tested beforehand may not be effective, she said.
“I think this idea that testing is going to help make holiday travel safe is really false,” Kistler said. “Testing is a snapshot. It is a photo, not a movie.”
She added that people may catch the virus a few hours before they get tested, but the test will not register that they have COVID-19, allowing the virus to spread.
“If you imagine a family coming together for a dinner and you have cousins that haven’t seen each other or been in the same space, any person who you come in contact with at that gathering, you’re assuming and taking on their sphere of influence in their pod as well,” Robertson said. “It just exponentially increases the number of chances you’ve been exposed to people who have COVID.”
When tough choices have to be made, she said, there are steps that families can take to lessen but not eliminate the chances of spreading the virus.
She said having college-aged adults returning home to a multigenerational household is preferable than several separate families meeting in-person over the holidays.
“I would still feel better about a scenario where one person is coming back from college and going into a home where everyone else has been safe than a family gathering of 15 people who haven’t been spending time together traveling and then gathering together,” Robertson said. “That is actually way more dangerous than one person coming back from college.”
The United States is now in its ninth month enduring the pandemic, with many states and municipalities reimposing coronavirus restrictions to deal with the fall surge in cases.
Those case counts prompted the CDC to warn against holiday travel.
U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow argued that “pandemic fatigue” was contributing to recent spikes in COVID-19 infections.
“It’s extremely important to not become complacent about our health and safety practices,” he said. “If we do, the longer this pandemic will go on.”
But until there’s an effective vaccine that’s widely distributed, health experts say preventive measures will need to be taken.
Robertson added that while “social isolation is bad for anyone...we still need to find ways to connect during these really important holidays” through alternatives such as virtual meetings or house drive-by greetings.
“Can you do other creative ways to help make sure that you’re not going to socially isolate older adults and still do our best to keep them safe?” she asked. “There’s just no zero-risk scenario and people are going to have to make their own internal calculations. And remember that there are ways to still celebrate these holidays and have important, meaningful connections and not just be at the dinner table with 20 people.”