Skip to cookie consent Skip to main content

How to Gather Safely for the Holidays (Avoiding COVID-19, Flu, and RSV)

Contributor: Alexy Arauz Boudreau, MD, MPH
7 minute read
Portrait of smiling African-American grandmother serving food while celebrating Thanksgiving with big happy family at dinner table

November and December are festive months, full of gatherings with family and friends. After 2 years of disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with COVID-19 vaccines and bivalent COVID-19 boosters now widely available, many people are hoping for a more normal holiday season this year.

However, COVID-19 continues to spread in our communities, and, unlike the last 2 years, other respiratory viruses, including the flu and RSV are on the rise.

What does this mean for the holiday season this year? Alexy Arauz Boudreau, MD, MPH, a Mass General Brigham pediatrician, provides safety tips for those planning celebrations. Dr. Arauz Boudreau is associate chief of Pediatrics for Primary Care at Massachusetts General Hospital and medical director for Population Health Management at Mass General for Children.

Learn more about how to safely gather with loved ones to keep everyone as healthy as possible.

How can I prevent illness during the holidays?

“Holiday gatherings create shared memories and bring together multiple generations. Often the more, the merrier,” says Dr. Arauz Boudreau. “Unfortunately, these close indoor settings, with people who face different risks from respiratory illness, also are the perfect environments to spread viruses. However, there are steps we can all take to keep our family and friends safer.“

Here’s how to reduce your risk of getting sick and help prevent the spread of illness:

  • Stay up-to-date with your vaccines for COVID-19 and flu. Vaccines help protect both you and your loved ones from serious illness, particularly babies, children, the elderly, and immunocompromised individuals.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your mouth when sneezing or coughing. Wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces. It’s especially important to clean those that are touched often, like doorknobs.
  • Stay home if you feel sick. Get a COVID test if you have symptoms or you’ve been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19.
  • Consider wearing a mask. You can wear a mask regardless of community levels of COVID-19 or other viruses. But wearing a mask is especially important if there are higher levels of virus circulating and if you or those around you are at risk for severe disease from COVID-19 or other respiratory viruses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a helpful risk COVID-19 risk calculator to understand your risk of getting COVID-19 and of getting very sick from COVID-19.
There is no vaccine against RSV, so the best lines of defense to protect the babies and grandparents around us are staying away if we are sick, washing our hands, and covering our coughs and sneezes.

Alexy Arauz Boudreau, MD, MPH
Mass General Brigham

Is it too late to get the COVID, flu, or other vaccines?

Not at all! Get all the vaccines available to you as recommended by your doctor, including the COVID-19 primary vaccines and boosters, and the flu vaccine. If you will be around a newborn baby over the holidays, get a Tdap vaccine if you’re not already up-to-date. Remember, if you’re vaccinated, you not only increase your own protection but also reduce the risk for those around you.

“For most of us, RSV results in a regular cold. However, for babies and our grandparents, it can be very serious, even requiring care in a hospital like intubation,” explains Dr. Arauz Boudreau. Intubation is when a health care provider inserts a tube through a patient’s mouth or nose, into their trachea (windpipe). It helps air flow through the trachea.

“There is no vaccine against RSV, so the best lines of defense to protect the babies and grandparents around us are staying away if we are sick, washing our hands, and covering our coughs and sneezes, “ she adds.

Where can I get COVID or flu vaccines?

To find a COVID vaccine location near you, visit one of the following sites:

You can also find an updated COVID vaccine location by texting your zip code to 438829 or calling 1-800-232-0233.

Mass General Brigham offers the updated booster vaccine at many primary care offices and some specialty offices during regularly scheduled office visits. We are also hosting several clinics that offer both flu and updated COVID-19 booster vaccines throughout the fall. Check our website to see which clinics have both the flu shot and the updated COVID-19 booster.

Mass General Brigham will also continue to distribute vaccines from our mobile community vans. Check the schedule to see if the vans will be near you.

Do the symptoms of COVID-19, flu, and RSV overlap?

The symptoms for COVID-19, flu, and RSV can be similar, which is why it’s important to stay home if you feel sick. As isolation is different for COVID-19, it is always best to do a home test for COVID-19 if you have symptoms.

Otherwise, if your symptoms are mild, testing for flu or RSV is not necessary, as the treatments are the same: rest, fluids, and fever control. Grandma may have her own ways of treating you, such as chicken noodle soup.

Overlapping symptoms can include:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Runny nose
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat

If you lose your sense of smell or taste, that can be a symptom of COVID-19 infection.

Seek medical attention if you or a loved one experience symptoms like:

  • Labored or trouble breathing
  • Trouble drinking or eating
  • Excessive sleepiness or irritability

Learn more about RSV symptoms and treatment based on age.

How can I plan a safe holiday gathering?

Talk with your guests attending the event to align on the ground rules. This may look different according to each person’s health concerns and risks, personal preferences, whether or not the event can be held outside, and the number of people attending.

Gather with others who are up-to-date on their vaccines and who you can count on to not come if they have symptoms. Smaller gatherings can be lower risk than larger gatherings. Gatherings held outdoors are lower risk for spread than indoor gatherings.

“All this reduces your risk of spreading a virus,” explains Dr. Arauz Boudreau. “Smaller numbers mean fewer people to bring in a virus and being outdoors reduces the concentration of any viral particles that are circulating.”

Getting to zero risk is highly unlikely. Here’s how to minimize your risk:

  • Encourage guests to stay up-to-date with their vaccines and booster shots.
  • Remind guests with any cold or flu-like symptoms to stay home. Include them in a virtual way so they can celebrate from afar.
  • Hold the event outdoors, if possible.
  • Consider antigen testing on the day of the event. If guests have symptoms—even with a negative antigen test—they should stay home.

It may take a little extra time and coordination, but planning ahead will ensure the best chance of a safe and healthy holiday. Cheers!

Headshot of Alexy Arauz Boudreau, MD, MPH