I doubt I’ll change anyone’s mind — especially this close to the holidays — but I’m gonna say this anyway: It. Is. Not. Safe. To. Gather. For. The. Holidays.
No, not even if you test
I don’t care if you have a negative COVID test. It doesn’t matter. This article does a great job of laying out why. But the TLDR:
- You could get infected in between taking the test and leaving for the trip, or
- You could get infected at the testing site itself, or most notably
- YOU COULD GET A FALSE NEGATIVE
Did you know that in the first four days of infection, tests can come up falsely positive as much as 67% of the time?
In the early days, there may just not be enough of the virus in your nasal cavity to be detected. And that’s with PCR tests — which are far more accurate than antigen ones used for rapid results.
Then there’s the chance that:
- The swab isn’t administered correctly (which I imagine is even more likely if you do one of the drive-through tests where you swab yourself)
- The sample gets contaminated
- The sample isn’t stored at the correct temperature
- The chemicals used for the test simply don’t work properly that one time.
But even assuming the collection, storing and testing processes go perfectly, unless your entire household has completely quarantined for four days before the test, there’s a chance — a potentially very large one — that you’ll get a false negative.
Still not convinced?
The article cites a summer camp that required teens to quarantine for a week before leaving and to bring proof of a negative test result that was no more than a week old.
Having taken those precautions, they felt they didn’t need to use masks or social distance — the same conditions as family gatherings. (Actually, no, there’ll probably be way more hugging at family gatherings.)
The overnight camp resulted in 116 COVID cases.
Can you even get results in time?
Not to mention that people are assuming they can actually get their test results in time. The couple people’s plans I heard were discussing getting tested five to seven days before leaving.
That may not be enough based on some comments I’ve seen from people on PF Twitter.
One said that where they live in Long Island PCR tests are taking 10+ days, so most people are resorting to antigen tests (which, again, are less accurate). Someone in Pennsylvania reported not being able to get a test at all with a doctor’s referral. A woman in Westchester County New York went to a testing facility that was all but deserted, yet it still took her a full week to get her results.
And the number of people exposed are predicted to keep ramping up as pandemic fatigue heightens and people get more careless. So more and more tests are going to need to be run, extending wait times.
So I worry that some people will feel pressure not to upset “the whole family’s plans” if they don’t get their test results back in time. I think they’ll reason that they feel fine and most people’s symptoms develop within five days, anyway. Which ignores the fact that around 20% of cases are asymptomatic (but still contagious).
Even if you get the results in time
But maybe you test nice and early — 10 or so days before you leave — and you went straight home after the test to isolate, avoiding any more potential encounters with infected people.
Well, again, you could’ve been exposed at the facility. Because certainly some of those people are infected, and masks aren’t 100% effective at blocking droplets.
But no, you probably won’t get infected there.
And if you were mostly staying home even before the test, you probably weren’t in the early stages of an infection when you went to take the test. Which means you probably won’t get a false negative.
And if you’re careful you probably won’t get it at that pit stop on the road, traveling to the gathering. Though a quick note about that…
When I mentioned my concern about pit stops, a friend pointed out that scientists now believe it’s pretty uncommon to get infected from surfaces. The only really risky times are apparently if someone has recently sneezed or coughed on a surface and you touch the surface within one to two hours.
Yes, I said, but that’s not really my main issue. Most bathrooms you use on the road don’t generally have a ton of ventilation. And you don’t know if any other users in the last few hours were maskless or briefly took their masks off. That’s a problem because larger droplets can remain in the air 8 to 14 minutes and aerosol (microdroplets) can remain up to three hours.
But yes, the people before you probably wore and kept on their masks. And even if they didn’t, longer exposure to the virus is the more common cause of infection, so you probably won’t get COVID walking through a single cloud of droplets.
And once you get there, well everyone else coming to the gathering is probably being as careful as you all agreed to.
But as I told a friend, once you get up to four or five probablys for a proposed single activity, I feel like you should just nope right on outta that idea.
Generations of infection
Remember, please, that you’re not just risking yourselves.
It’s great that everyone in your family will wear masks everywhere they go after the gathering. But those aren’t 100% effective, so that’s no guarantee. Meanwhile, most of us see people in our social bubble without masks. Ideally, if it’s not someone we’re dating, it’s usually distanced bisits. But even that is still not a complete guarantee because aerosolized droplets can travel farther than six feet.
So if someone at your gathering is sick and infects many of you, the infection will spread to people in your social bubble, who will spread it to people at work or someone else in their social bubble. And that means that, statistically, someone down the road will die.
Maybe not someone at the gathering or even someone you/they know. It could be a few tp several generations of infection down the road. But at least one death will likely occur. Because you guys had to see each other in close quarters without masks.
Take the now-infamous Maine wedding from this summer. One single presymptomatic person infected 27 of the 55 guests. It resulted in 177 cases and seven deaths within just three generations of infection:
- One prison guard was infected and kept going to work even with symptoms. The prison ended up with 50 infected inmates and 18 infected coworkers. The coworkers infected 16 more people, and presumably it went on from there.
- One wedding guest visited his mom, who works at a long-term care facility. That led to 13 infected coworkers and 24 sick residents, six of whom died. (Yes, they were over 70; yes they had underlying conditions. It’s still lives lost unnecessarily.)
- Six other wedding guests directly infected 14 people in their community, one of whom died.
Also, it’s worth noting that a complete guest list wasn’t actually made available to contact tracers, so the count could be higher. In fact, a later article linked an eighth death to the wedding and had an updated case count of 270.
So I really feel like we cannot overstate the issue of the potential for exponential growth of infections.
Your being healthy doesn’t matter
I saw one Twitter user who said high-risk family members were staying away, but otherwise plans were unchanged from previous years.
Since his family is so concerned about high-risk members, then presumably they interviewed everyone in their social bubble and at work for medical history — and asked for the medical history of the people those people had direct contact with. And maybe for good measure, that of the folks in contact with those people’ too.
Remember, people with medical conditions aren’t always broadcasting it. It’s more likely they would now, while they fret about risk of exposure. But it’s not certain. And even if they’re definitely not high-risk individuals, you don’t know everyone they see who might be high risk. And so forth.
Also, since this seems to be some sort of secret: YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE HIGH-RISK TO DIE OF COVID.
And I really wish people would stop focusing on death as the only long-term issue from getting COVID.
We may not find out for ages how many people “recover” from COVID but are later found to have long-term damage to their internal organs. So this isn’t just about who will survive COVID.
And this definitely isn’t just about you.
I get that I don’t get it
Having grown up far from extended family, I didn’t spend many holiday seasons with anyone more than my mom and dad. We flew out maybe three or four times to see family, but three tickets from Anchorage to the East Coast at peak holiday prices was probably staggeringly expensive.
So mainly we stayed home and had holidays with just us three. And since Dad was Jewish, Mom and I didn’t make a big fuss. I had a small tree in my room, we opened presents Christmas morning, and we had a nice meal that night, with my cousin sometimes coming over once she moved up there.
Starting around age 22, I stayed in Seattle for the holidays. So before I met Tim, I spent several Christmases alone. (Even when Mom lived in Seattle, she often went back East for Christmas. And thank god she took advantage of time with her dad while she could.) And even when Tim and I were together — even when his parents were in the guest house — we didn’t do a lot of Christmas celebrating. Mainly we just opened presents and then Nadine cooked a nice dinner.
So I know that I can’t understand what it’s like for some people to be away from family for important holidays. Especially after this stressful year we’ve all had. And especially because, yes, there is a chance that this will turn out to be the last year you could have seen that relative. (Though if someone at the gathering is unknowingly infected, that could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.)
Thus to some extent, I know that I can’t know exactly what I’m asking from some people out there when I say, “I know you really want to see family. But maybe you could just… not?”
Still, the precautions that people have convinced themselves make it okay, aren’t nearly as much of a guarantee as they think. And yes, it sucks. It may even be soul-wrenching for some.
But could you just… not?
Unfortunately, the fact remains: Travel isn’t safe; indoors, unmasked family gatherings aren’t safe. No matter what you do, and no matter what you tell yourself.
If you want to visit with family outdoors at six feet apart, or drop by to wave through windows, okay.
But indoors? Unmasked? Well, I’ll just leave you with this graphic from the aftermath of Canadian Thanksgiving.
Who else is staying home this year?