Asking about vaccination status ahead of time and agreeing on ground rules in advance can make gatherings less stressful for everyone. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

The days leading up to winter holidays can be busy with checking items off your to-do list.

This year, medical experts are urging folks to add some important tasks to that list:

  1. Get your COVID-19 vaccination or booster.
  2. If your kids are eligible, make sure they get vaccinated.
  3. Plan ahead for how to make your holiday gatherings pandemic-safe.

In recent weeks, hospitals throughout West Michigan have faced record numbers of COVID-19 patients.

This creates mounting challenges, especially during a time of year that usually sees higher numbers of people hospitalized for other reasons, said Rosemary Olivero, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

“We still remain in a crisis situation,” Dr. Olivero said. “We have not turned the corner yet, and this should give us great pause.”

But unlike last year around the holidays, we have a tool at our disposal: vaccinations.

Get vaccinated

The best way to protect yourself and your loved ones is getting vaccinated, Dr. Olivero said.

Research shows an unvaccinated person is 15 more times likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than a vaccinated person. An unvaccinated person is also six times more likely to catch COVID-19.

“The vaccines are safe and effective at preventing severe disease,” Dr. Olivero said. “This is far and away the most important protective measure you can take for yourself, as well as for keeping the community as healthy as possible and curbing the spread of the virus in Michigan.”

Don’t forget your flu shot as well. Having fewer sick people in the community right now is critical, Dr. Olivero said.

Dr. Olivero also urged parents of children ages 5 to 17 to make arrangements for them to be vaccinated. Vaccinating children is also important to limit community spread of the virus, she said.

At holiday gatherings, children could transmit the virus to higher-risk adults such as grandparents. The risk of that is reduced with vaccination, she said.

Be informed and make a plan

Dr. Olivero urged everyone to do their homework before planning holiday gatherings.

“The big thing is that we have to be sensitive to what’s going on in our local community and what is going on in places people are traveling to and from,” she said.

Michigan is currently the worst state in the country in terms of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people.

Add to that the new omicron variant that has been identified in the United States, and all the factors call for caution, Dr. Olivero said.

“We need to double up on our efforts. I urge people to take it seriously, especially until we know more,” she said. That means wearing masks in indoor public places and limiting gathering sizes.

Before families gather for the holidays, they need to have some hard conversations, she said.

Questions to ask:

  • Is everyone vaccinated?
  • How many people are we comfortable having?
  • Are people willing to travel and if so, how far?
  • Should we test ahead of time?
  • Does everyone agree not to come if they are sick or exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19?
  • Will we wear masks and stay 6 feet apart?
  • Can we meet outside instead of inside? Can we add ventilation if we meet inside?
  • Are there any people in attendance at high risk of severe COVID-19?
  • Will those attending limit their exposure in the days leading up to the gathering?

“Those discussions need to happen beforehand and they need to be very honest and open,” Dr. Olivero said.

While we are all weary of dealing with the pandemic, now is not the time to let our guard down, she said.

Dr. Olivero hopes for the day when we live with COVID-19 in the same way we live with the influenza virus, preparing for it as best we can, but otherwise living our lives normally.

“We’re not there yet with COVID,” she said.

Still, she encourages everyone to embrace ways to make the winter holiday season meaningful for them, while still being personally safe and protecting loved ones and the community.

Consider some of the following ideas:

  • Make baked goods or favorite holiday dishes and deliver them in a contactless way to friends, family and neighbors.
  • Find a special way to remember and honor those in the community who have been particularly impacted by COVID-19, including the elderly, medical workers, teachers and other essential workers.
  • Get outside and enjoy the Michigan winter weather.
  • Give the gift of life by donating blood or plasma. Encourage others to do the same.
  • Find a charity you and your extended family believe in and learn how, together, you can help the cause.

“This should be a joyful time,” Dr. Olivero said. “A way to say ‘I care about you’ is to look after the health and wellbeing of our friends and loved ones. That can help offset the stress of it all.”