Should our patients really go home for the holidays?


As an East Coast transplant residing in Texas, I look forward to the annual sojourn home to celebrate the holidays with family and friends – as do many of our patients and their families. But this is 2020. SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19, is still circulating. To make matters worse, cases are rising in 45 states and internationally. The day of this writing 102,831 new cases were reported in the United States. As we prepare for the holidays, it is time to rethink how safe it is to travel and/or gather with people who do not live in our household.

COVID-19 was an uninvited guest at family's 3-week gathering

Social distancing, wearing masks, and hand washing have been strategies recommended to help mitigate the spread of the virus. We know adherence is not always 100%. The reality is that several families will consider traveling and gathering with others over the holidays. Their actions may lead to increased infections, hospitalizations, and even deaths. It behooves us to at least remind them of the potential consequences of the activity, and if travel and/or holiday gatherings are inevitable, to provide some guidance to help them look at both the risks and benefits and offer strategies to minimize infection and spread.

What should be considered prior to travel?

Here is a list of points to ponder:

  • Is your patient is in a high-risk group for developing severe disease or visiting someone who is in a high-risk group?
  • What is their mode of transportation?
  • What is their destination?
  • How prevalent is the disease at their destination, compared with their community?
  • What will be their accommodations?
  • How will attendees prepare for the gathering, if at all?
  • Will multiple families congregate after quarantining for 2 weeks or simply arrive?
  • At the destination, will people wear masks and socially distance?
  • Is an outdoor venue an option?

All of these questions should be considered by patients.

Review high-risk groups

In terms of high-risk groups, we usually focus on underlying medical conditions or extremes of age, but Black and LatinX children and their families have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and hospitalized more frequently than other racial/ ethnic groups in the United States. Of 277,285 school-aged children infected between March 1 and Sept. 19, 2020, 42% were LatinX, 32% White, and 17% Black, yet they comprise 18%, 60%, and 11% of the U.S. population, respectively. Of those hospitalized, 45% were LatinX, 22% White, and 24% Black. LatinX and Black children also have disproportionately higher mortality rates.

Think about transmission and how to mitigate it

Many patients erroneously think combining multiple households for small group gatherings is inconsequential. These types of gatherings serve as a continued source of SARS-CoV-2 spread. For example, a person in Illinois with mild upper respiratory infection symptoms attended a funeral; he reported embracing the family members after the funeral. He dined with two people the evening prior to the funeral, sharing the meal using common serving dishes. Four days later, he attended a birthday party with nine family members. Some of the family members with symptoms subsequently attended church, infecting another church attendee. A cluster of 16 cases of COVID-19 was subsequently identified, including three deaths likely resulting from this one introduction of COVID-19 at these two family gatherings.

Dr. Bonnie M. Word, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and director of the Houston Travel Medicine Clinic

Dr. Bonnie M. Word

In Tennessee and Wisconsin, household transmission of SARS-CoV-2 was studied prospectively. A total of 101 index cases and 191 asymptomatic household contacts were enrolled between April and Sept. 2020; 102 of 191 (53%) had SARS-CoV-2 detected during the 14-day follow-up. Most infections (75%) were identified within 5 days and occurred whether the index case was an adult or child.

Lastly, one adolescent was identified as the source for an outbreak at a family gathering where 15 persons from five households and four states shared a house between 8 and 25 days in July 2020. Six additional members visited the house. The index case had an exposure to COVID-19 and had a negative antigen test 4 days after exposure. She was asymptomatic when tested. She developed nasal congestion 2 days later, the same day she and her family departed for the gathering. A total of 11 household contacts developed confirmed, suspected, or probable COVID-19, and the teen developed symptoms. This report illustrates how easily SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted, and how when implemented, mitigation strategies work because none of the six who only visited the house was infected. It also serves as a reminder that antigen testing is indicated only for use within the first 5-12 days of onset of symptoms. In this case, the adolescent was asymptomatic when tested and had a false-negative test result.

Ponder modes of transportation

How will your patient arrive to their holiday destination? Nonstop travel by car with household members is probably the safest way. However, for many families, buses and trains are the only options, and social distancing may be challenging. Air travel is a must for others. Acquisition of COVID-19 during air travel appears to be low, but not absent based on how air enters and leaves the cabin. The challenge is socially distancing throughout the check in and boarding processes, as well as minimizing contact with common surfaces. There also is loss of social distancing once on board. Ideally, masks should be worn during the flight. Additionally, for those with international destinations, most countries now require a negative polymerase chain reaction COVID-19 test within a specified time frame for entry.

Essentially the safest place for your patients during the holidays is celebrating at home with their household contacts. The risk for disease acquisition increases with travel. You will not have the opportunity to discuss holiday plans with most parents. However, you can encourage them to consider the pros and cons of travel with reminders via telephone, e-mail, and /or social messaging directly from your practices similar to those sent for other medically necessary interventions. As for me, I will be celebrating virtually this year. There is a first time for everything.

For additional information that also is patient friendly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers information about travel within the United States and international travel.

Dr. Word is a pediatric infectious disease specialist and director of the Houston Travel Medicine Clinic. She said she had no relevant financial disclosures. Email her at [email protected].

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