I’ll be candid: I’m dreading this holiday season. While last year (winter of 2021/22) we were facing the formidable Omicron BA.1 variant, the U.S. at least had some mitigations in place, particularly mask mandates on transportation and general mask mandates in many parts of the country. This year, we face a potpourri of even more transmissible and immune-evasive SARS2 variants, plus parallel out of control influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) epidemics, brought on by hundreds of millions of people (and kids!) whose immune systems were compromised by previous SARS2 infection(s).
There are many who are able to stay home and weather the storm. If you can, please do so!!
But there are others who are in a relationship with more complicated dynamics where just opting out of a holiday gathering, while technically always an option, can lead to a fracturing or potentially even more problems down the line, like partners relaxing or giving up on the mitigations they’ve been maintaining thus far. I know a few people who are in exactly this situation, who have many years invested in their relationships, and who face either serious relationship repercussions or even a partner tossing mitigations to the wind altogether if they’re not met “partway,” for lack of a better term.
Yes, it’s easy for some to say, “To heck with ‘em! Just don’t go, and if they don’t like it, tough!” For those who have ten, twenty, or more years invested in a relationship with someone they love, this is a cruel oversimplification.
What to do then?
Above all, remember that you’re your own best – and perhaps only – advocate. If you’re in a situation where you’re the only one who’s concerned about the upcoming train wreck and no one else in your family wants to hear it, you have to set up your own red lines. And I’m not talking about the bullshit rationalizations used by the likes of Bob Wachter or Tom Frieden: I’m talking about lines or thresholds of risk that you will not cross.
For example, in my own case, I’ll be wearing my N95 (and if anybody’s doing weed, my P100 with organic filters, as I hate the smell and can’t be exposed to it, even second hand, because of a zero drug policy at work) to a family gathering. None of those we’ll be visiting mask or otherwise mitigate; the only small plus is that it will be a group of about half a dozen, not a huge gala like many families have.
Again, don’t “at” me with “just don’t go” – you don’t know my situation and I’m not obliged to explain it to you. The point is that wearing an effective mask is a red line: I’m not going in the house without it on, and I won’t be taking it off (including to eat, obviously) unless we can go outside and I judge the conditions are sufficiently low risk to warrant doing so. But it’s going to be cold, so that option likely won’t present itself.
Should you talk to your family about mitigations and try to convince them not to “go YOLO”? Of course you should! But in our case (and others), we’ve already had these discussions and the terrain is well-known.
I’ll also then be isolating continuously as best I can from everyone else afterward. This is really the hardest – and riskiest – part, especially if you’re traveling with someone who risks exposure at the gathering and sharing a hotel room. I’ll be masking continuously, and we have a fairly powerful transportable HEPA filter for the room: I’ll be putting it on my side of the bed at night, blowing in my direction, and will have the hotel HVAC fan on continuously to circulate the air as much as possible. I know some can wear a mask while they sleep, but that’s not an option for me, as I roll around too much. I’ll also be using liberal doses of Enovid nitric oxide nasal spray. We also recently had our second Novavax dose, in case the virus gets through.
There are likely other things I can/will do (many people have a variety of good ideas for various situations), but that’s effectively the baseline minimum.
Will even this create some angst or consternation? For some in my family group I’m sure it likely will. And in such case I’ll offer to just go back to the hotel room (maybe pick up some carry out from anywhere that might be open on the way) and enjoy a low-risk environment for as long as I can.
But I will NOT take off my mask. I’m simply not capable of magical thinking at this point, like SARS2 will politely leave us alone just because it’s family and the holidays. I’ll pray, as I have every day (and I have a VERY troubled relationship with the powers above), that no one there gets sick, but I’ve been around long enough to know that prayer and hope are very poor strategies. And I suspect there’s going to be tremendous pressure to take off the mask. But I’ve established that as a red line, have been focusing on it to reinforce it in my mind, and I’m not crossing it.
Anyway, I just wanted to put this out as food for thought and also to remind folks who are in similar situations that, first, you are not alone; and second, you have the right to make critical risk decisions for yourself, regardless of how much pressure family members may put on you. Be strong and do what you need to do to protect yourself as best as you can in your individual situation.