There are no simple answers to provide safe holiday family gatherings, two University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown professors said Tuesday during a town hall delivered on Zoom.
Much of the risk of spreading COVID-19 is the result of the behavior of others who have come into contact with family members, said Jill Henning, associate professor of biology.
That situation leaves a lot of unknowns, she said.
“We have all these ‘ifs’ to consider, and it can get daunting and very overwhelming to try to figure out what you should do,” Henning said. “I find it to be quite anxiety-inducing and I spend my life looking at diseases and how they spread.”
Henning and Susan M. Wieczorek, associate professor of communication, fielded questions for about 60 participants Tuesday during the first session of “COVID Questions.” The virtual town hall was sponsored by Pitt-Johnstown and The Tribune-Democrat, along with the In This Together Cambria group.
Wieczorek stressed the importance of understanding different risk factors and communicating fears and concerns while establishing expectations for any family gatherings.
“I look at what types of fears people have,” Wieczorek said. “It’s important that we talk about those fears prior to gathering.”
Some concerns can be eased by establishing rules based on public health guidance.
“You don’t know for sure that everybody is going to follow these safety standards, but it’s important to articulate them,” Wieczorek said.
Her family agreed to quarantine for two weeks before getting together for Christmas, and Wieczorek said she was among several relatives who had COVID-19 tests.
But Henning warned it is too late to begin taking precautions.
“If you were exposed to COVID-19 Tuesday, today and that exposure resulted in an infection, within three days you would be contagious but not symptomatic,” Henning said on Tuesday. “That places us right on Christmas Day.”
It is still possible to reduce the risk, she added.
“If you were choosing to get together with your family, just keep in mind: wear a mask,” Henning said. “I know that doesn’t sound like a fun Christmas.”
An outdoor gathering, perhaps with a backyard campfire is another option, she said.
Citing information on the Carnegie Mellon University COVIDCast website, Henning said Cambria County’s COVID-19 risk is 53%.
“Every time you interact, it’s a flip of a coin,” she said.
She defined interaction as being within six feet of someone without masks, or being masked while being within six feet of others who are masked for more than 15 minutes.