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Going Residence for the Holidays? For Many Individuals, That’s a Dangerous Resolution

From Victoria Knight, Kaiser Health News

Vivek Kaliraman, who lives in Los Angeles, has celebrated Christmas every year since 2002 with his best friend who lives in Houston. But this year, instead of getting on a plane that felt too risky during the COVID pandemic, he took a car and planned to stay with his friend for several weeks.

The trip – a 24-hour drive – was too much for a day, however, and so Kaliraman called seven hotels in Las Cruces, New Mexico – roughly halfway – to ask how many rooms they were filling and what their cleaning and their food were. Delivery logs were.

“I would call and speak to someone at the front desk at night and then call again during the day,” said Kaliraman, 51, a digital health entrepreneur. “I would make sure the two different front desk clerks I spoke to gave the same answer. “”

When he arrived at the hotel he had chosen, he asked for a room that had not been occupied the night before. And although it got cold that night, he left the window open.

Scary statistics call for strict precautionary measures

Many Americans, like Kaliraman, who ultimately made it to Houston, are still planning to travel for the December vacation despite the nation’s deteriorating coronavirus numbers.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the weekly COVID hospitalization rate was at its highest level since the pandemic began. More than 283,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Public health officials are bracing themselves for an additional surge in cases arising from the millions who traveled home for Thanksgiving despite CDC advice, including the 9 million who passed through airports November 20-29 . Hospital wards quickly reach their capacity. With this in mind, health experts are again urging Americans to stay home for the holidays.

For many, however, a risk-benefit analysis is important when traveling.

According to David Ropeik, author of “How Risky Is It Really?” And an expert in risk perception psychology, it is important to remember that what this type of situation is about cannot be precisely quantified.

Our brains perceive risk by looking at the facts of the threat – in this case, the contraction or transmission of COVID-19 – and then the context of our own lives, which is often associated with emotions, he said. If you personally know someone who died of COVID-19, this is an additional emotional context. If you want to attend a loved family member’s wedding, it is a different type of context.

“Think about it like a seesaw. On one side are all the facts about COVID-19, like the number of deaths, “Ropeik said.” And on the other hand are all emotional factors. Holidays are a huge weight on the emotional side of this seesaw. ”

The people we interviewed for this story said they understand the risk involved. And their reasons for going home were different. Kaliraman likened his trip to seeing his friend as an important ritual – he has not missed this visit in 19 years.

What is clear is that many do not make the decision to travel lightly.

For Annette Olson, 56, the risk of flying from Washington, DC to Tyler, Texas was well worth the money because she had to help take care of her older parents over the vacation.

“In my calculations, I would be less of a risk for her than I would be for her to get a rotating nurse who comes into the house, who has probably worked elsewhere and comes and goes repeatedly,” said Olson. I’m here, I’m quarantined . “

Now that she is with her parents, she wears a mask in the common areas of the house until she gets her COVID test results back.

Others plan to quarantine a few weeks before seeing family members – even if the family they want to see is just an hour’s drive away, as in Chelsea Toledo’s situation.

Toledo, 35, lives in Clarkston, Georgia and works from home. She pulled her 6-year-old daughter out of her personal study program after Thanksgiving in hopes of seeing her mother and stepfather over Christmas. They plan to quarantine and deliver food for several weeks so they won’t be exposed to others before the trip. But whether Toledo will cope with this is still open and may change due to the COVID case rates in their area.

“We take things week after week or really day after day,” said Toledo. “There is no plan to see my mother; there is a hope to see my mother.”

And for young adults without a family of their own, after a difficult year, seeing their parents on vacation is a necessary mood lift. Rebecca, a 27-year-old who lives in Washington, DC, went to New York City with a roommate to see her parents and grandfather for Hanukkah. (Rebecca asked KHN not to publish her last name because she feared the advertising could negatively impact her public health job.)

“I’m fine, but I think it’s very useful to look forward to something. I didn’t want to cancel my trip entirely, “said Rebecca.” I am the only child and grandchild who have no children. I can control my actions and exposures more than anyone else. “

She and her two roommates were quarantined for two weeks before the trip and tested twice for COVID-19 during that time. Now that Rebecca is in New York, she will also be quarantined by herself for 10 days and retested before seeing her family.

“I think based on what I’ve done it feels safe,” said Rebecca. “I know it’s safest not to see her, so I’m a little nervous.”

But the best plan can still go wrong. Tests can give false negative results, and relatives can overlook potential exposure or fail to get into the gravity of the situation. To better understand the potential consequences of the risk you are taking, Ropeik recommends developing “personal, visceral” thoughts about the worst that could happen.

“Imagine grandma gets sick and dies” or “grandma is in bed and in the hospital and can’t visit her,” said Ropeik. This will offset the positive emotional pull of the holidays and help you make a more informed decision.

Damage minimization?

Everyone surveyed for this story admitted that many of the precautions they take are only possible because they enjoy certain privileges, including being able to work from home, isolate, or deliver groceries – options that may not be available to many, including essential and low-income workers.

Still, Americans have to travel during the December vacation. And similar to teaching safer sex practices in schools, and not just abstinence, it is important to develop risk reduction strategies so that “when you do this, think about how you can do it safely,” said Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, Chief Quality and Patient Safety Officer at Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University.

First, Gonsenhauser recommends that you look at the COVID case numbers in your area, consider traveling from a higher risk community to a lower risk community, and talk to family members about the risks. Also, check to see if the state you are traveling to has quarantine or testing requirements that you must meet upon arrival.

Also, make sure to quarantine yourself before you travel. The recommendations range from seven to 14 days.

Another thing to remember, Gonsenhauser said, is that a negative COVID test before you travel is not a free pass and only works if done in combination with the quarantine period.

Also, consider your means of transport – driving is safer than flying.

When you get to your destination, prepare for what may be the toughest part: continuing physical distancing, wearing masks, and hand washing. “It’s easy to let go of our watch during the holidays, but you have to stay vigilant,” said Gonsenhauser.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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