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

Contributor(s): Alexy Arauz Boudreau, MD, MPH, and Erica S. Shenoy, MD, PhD
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. These are also times of year when we can expect increases in respiratory viruses such as the flu, COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and others. Respiratory virus seasons can be mild or severe, and we can’t predict what kind of season 2023-2024 will be.

What does this mean for the holiday season this year? Alexy D. 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. “Indoor settings are also 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.
  • Learn how to protect yourself against RSV. If you are age 60 and older, you may be eligible to receive an RSV vaccine. To protect their infant, pregnant people are encouraged to get an RSV vaccine. Infants also may receive monoclonal antibody treatments.
  • 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 respiratory viruses. 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.
It’s definitely not too late to get your vaccines—remember that vaccines protect you and those around you.

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 COVID-19, flu, and RSV vaccines. 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 those older than 60 , 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.

“This is an exciting time in health care, as new RSV monoclonal antibodies have been approved to be given universally to infants younger than 8 months and high-risk children under 2 years of age,” says Dr. Arauz Boudreau. “These will lower their risk for severe RSV disease. However, supply shortages may make it harder for some families to get the monoclonal antibodies, so it is best to follow the precautions above.”

Where can I get COVID or flu vaccines?

“It’s definitely not too late to get your vaccines — remember that vaccines protect you and those around you,” Dr. Arauz Boudreau confirms.

To find a COVID or flu vaccine location near you, visit You can also find an updated COVID vaccine location by texting your zip code to 438829 or calling 1-800-232-0233. Many retail pharmacies also offer the RSV vaccine, especially for adults ages 60 and older.

Many primary care and specialty offices across Mass General Brigham also offer COVID, flu, and RSV vaccines at regularly scheduled office visits.

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. Home testing for COVID-19 is encouraged 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

Seek medical attention if you or a loved one experiences 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. 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.
  • 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.

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


Erica S. Shenoy, MD, PhD headshot


Infectious Diseases Doctor