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‘A Recipe for Disaster’: Dr. Paul Keim Discusses A Pandemic Holiday Season

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

It’s been one year since the coronavirus disease first appeared in China. More than eleven million people have been infected with COVID-19 in the United States alone, and confirmed cases continue to rise in almost every state, including Arizona. Public health experts say this winter will be a challenging time for controlling the pandemic, as cold weather drives activities indoors, and upcoming holidays tempt people to travel and gather in groups. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with infectious disease expert Dr. Paul Keim about how to handle a holiday season with COVID-19 as an uninvited guest.

Many folks are making plans to gather together with friends and family for the holidays. What do we need to know about that? Can that be done safely?
First off, I think people need to be aware that this is not going to go on forever. We’re not trying to figure out how to live our lives for the next two or three decades. We’re just trying to figure out how to live our lives in the next three to six months…. We know as we come out of winter, the weather will change and we’ll start getting outdoors and lowering our risk. There’s excellent news coming out about vaccines, so the vaccines are going to start being distributed by early next year and hopefully widely next year, by summer. So there is light at the end of the tunnel but we’ve got to get through what’s going to be a long dark winter for COVID… because we have all of the wrong parameters coming together all at once. One of it is the weather; the increasing rates of infection; and now we get into the holidays where it is very traditional for people to get together, travel across the country, and spend a lot of time together eating when you can’t wear a mask… and this is a recipe for disaster. I really urge people to think about the risk to them and their families, and really think about whether or not you can’t delay that big turkey dinner for one year, or until next summer because it is not a good idea to get together in close proximity right now.
I think there’s growing awareness that the pandemic is not just a threat to our physical health but also our mental health. How do we negotiate that? What would you say to people who say, well, for my mental health I really need to see my family?
Well, I think people are adapting to this…. Be proactive to reaching out to your friends in virtual ways, either by Zoom or by telephone. My 94-year mother is not very good at Zoom but she can answer the phone. I actually have a list of people I try to call on a regular basis…. I think that’s the best way to do this. Engage with people, but engage with them in a way that’s safe. If you can spend time outdoors, if you don’t mind going for a walk—that’s another tradition I have with some of my employees, I’ll meet them and do a meeting by walking outdoors…. and exercise is always good for your mental health
How does testing fit into this? Let’s say your whole family gets tested and you isolate for a few days or week, it is safe to get together?
First off, there’s no us thing as a zero risk activity. You’re always weighing what the risk is verses the benefits. If it’s really, really important to your family, make sure that every one of the people that’s going to participate is going to self-isolate for two weeks prior to that event. Getting tested if you think you’ve been exposed is a good idea. Testing is not a guarantee that you haven’t been infected, because you have to be tested in that window when you are expressing the virus. We know that can happen anywhere from a couple days to two weeks after you’ve been exposed. So testing by itself is not enough. But testing plus self-quarantine prior to having that big family event could be OK.
Do you have any other advice for how to celebrate safely this year?
One of the things I’m doing is going online and buying presents earlier than ever. So participate in the economy, and hang in there, because we are going to come out of this… I’m very optimistic we’ll get beyond this sometime next summer.
Paul Keim, thank you so much for speaking with me.
It was my pleasure, Melissa.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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