(NEXSTAR) – Once again, Americans will gather with friends and family for a COVID-19 pandemic-era Thanksgiving, only this year there are two additional viruses on the minds of many – RSV and the flu.
So if you’re feeling anxious about inadvertently having invited others to a super spreader event, don’t forget the following precautions, experts say.
Masks, vaccines and tests
“COVID, influenza, and other bacteria and viruses haven’t left us, so before you plan that Thanksgiving get-together, be sure that you’re immunized and all of your friends and family who can be immunized are so as well,” advised Neha Vyas, MD, family medicine physician for Cleveland Clinic.
Thanksgiving is just days away, but it’s not too late, experts say.
“I realize that many people are thinking that it’s too late to get vaccinated before Thanksgiving because the vaccines need time to be effective,” Los Angeles County health officer Dr. Muntu Davis told the Los Angeles Times. “While protection does ramp up over one to two weeks after you are vaccinated, this doesn’t mean that you will have zero protection until this point. You still have some protection, and you will be prepared for future events.”
Testing for COVID-19 close to the time of the event is another precaution the host and guests can take.
Wearing a mask is also still an effective way to decrease the transmission of droplets carrying viruses such as RSV and the flu, so if you’re anxious about being around so many people, or want to help protect the very young or immunocompromised, you may want to don a face covering while not eating.
Setting up the party
Ventilation can be tough in colder regions of the U.S., but increasing airflow and hanging out outside whenever possible will reduce the risk of virus transmission.
In Minnesota, for instance, where the high on Thanksgiving is around 34 degrees, an outside party may not be practical. However, a high-quality air filter and cracking windows and doors can help, experts say.
Dr. Vyas also suggested having hand sanitizer readily available and providing multiple towels in the bathroom so guests don’t have to use the same one.
As host, another strategy to consider is to create space between place settings and keep everyone from cramming into the same room.
While a buffet-style set up is standard for many big gatherings, you may want to change it up to keep people from having to touch the same serving utensils. One way of doing that is to plate the meals.
For hosts and guests alike, regular hand washing is more important than ever this year. While COVID may largely be passed through the air, RSV, for instance, can live for many hours on hard surfaces, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
Lastly, Vyas reminds hosts not to neglect properly cooking the food as well – thoroughly wash produce, heat dishes to the correct temperature and make sure leftovers are properly stored.
Additional cause for concern this year
As Americans head into the holiday season, a rapidly intensifying flu season is straining hospitals already overburdened with patients sick from other respiratory infections.
More than half the states have high or very high levels of flu, unusually high for this early in the season, the government reported Friday. Those 27 states are mostly in the South and Southwest but include a growing number in the Northeast, Midwest and West.
This is happening when children’s hospitals already are dealing with a surge of illnesses from RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, a common cause of cold-like symptoms that can be serious for infants and the elderly. And COVID-19 is still contributing to more than 3,000 hospital admissions each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Atlanta, Dr. Mark Griffiths describes the mix as a “viral jambalaya.” He said the children’s hospitals in his area have at least 30% more patients than usual for this time of year, with many patients forced to wait in emergency rooms for beds to open up.
“I tell parents that COVID was the ultimate bully. It bullied every other virus for two years,” said Griffiths, ER medical director of a Children’s Health Care of Atlanta downtown hospital.
With COVID-19 rates going down, “they’re coming back full force,” he said
The winter flu season usually doesn’t get going until December or January. Hospitalization rates from flu haven’t been this high this early since the 2009 swine flu pandemic, CDC officials say. The highest rates are among those 65 and older and children under 5, the agency said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.