Our Pandemic Holidays

Winter scene in the woods.

The most wonderful time of the year is likely feeling less festive for the vast majority of us in Vermont and Northern New York as we cancel or scale back our traditional holiday celebrations to slow the spread of COVID-19. With a nationwide surge threatening to overwhelm hospitals in some states and the country’s death toll surging past 300,000, this is a time when continued physical separation is critical, even as the holidays remind us of how long it has been since the close human interactions with family and friends that defined our before-pandemic lives.

“This is hard. I miss my parents too,” says Tim Lahey, MD, MMSc, an infectious disease expert for the UVM Medical Center who has gone more than a year without a visit with his mom and dad, who live in Salt Lake City. “We’re a really close family, so it’s been tough.” 

What’s important to remember, Dr. Lahey says, is that this period of separation won’t last forever. The first glimmer of hope came this week as doses of the first COVID-19 vaccine arrived in our region and across the country, with vaccination underway for prioritized populations as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the states.

“What we’re trying to do is buy time until those vaccines get to enough people so that we are protected and can gather together again,” explains Dr. Lahey, who plans to spend Christmas and New Year’s at home with his wife and two teenage sons. “This will get better – the vaccines are coming and they work. I remember the life I cherish and I look forward to getting back to it. What’s hard is I don't know exactly when that will be, but it’s in view. I’m setting my hopes on next Thanksgiving.”

The Gift of Vigilance

Infectious disease experts across the UVM Health Network echo Dr. Lahey’s call for continued vigilance during this holiday season and beyond. Brighter days are ahead of us, they agree, but they will arrive a lot faster if we refrain from social gatherings and continue washing hands, physical distancing and wearing masks when in public. This is important even if you are vaccinated, as we do not yet know how long vaccine-immunity for COVID-19 lasts.

Kristin Dooley, MHA, RN, director of infection control at UVM Health Network - Alice Hyde Medical Center, knows several people who died from COVID-19 in Syracuse, N.Y., where she worked during the spring surge. She says she doesn’t want to see anything like that in her new community of Malone. “It's the individual choices people make, especially during the holidays, that are going to determine how bad the next month or two are going to be – we cannot overwhelm our health care system.”

“It's the individual choices people make, especially during the holidays, that are going to determine how bad the next month or two are going to be – we cannot overwhelm our health care system.”Kristin Dooley
MHA, RN, director of infection control at
UVM Health Network - Alice Hyde Medical Center

Dooley said she will refrain from getting together with her parents, brother and sister-in-law over the holidays. They might repeat the same activity they enjoyed “together” on Thanksgiving – taking a three-mile hike along separate trails in different parts of the state while connected via Zoom. 

“Instead of the holidays being about sitting around the table to eat lots of food, this year can be a time when we switch things up and get active,” she says. “We all know that wellness, especially during this pandemic, is so important.”

Jessie Leyse, MD, MPH, is an infectious disease physician and head of infection prevention at UVM Health Network - Central Vermont Medical Center. She says she is heartened by the data showing Thanksgiving does not seem to have caused an increase in infection rates in Vermont. “I think all of us expected to have a significant spike, but we definitely haven't. And, you know, that just shows that people are listening and doing what we're asking them to do and being careful.”

“Everybody I talk to in this area stayed home for Thanksgiving,” Dr. Leyse continues. “They followed the guidance from the Vermont Department of Health and didn't go to multi-household gatherings, which I think really, really helped.”

A Different Kind of Cheer

For Christmas, Dr. Leyse and her husband will stay home again with their 2- and 4-year-old children. “As hard as Thanksgiving was, I feel like the winter holidays – Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s – are even tougher to not be around family members because we're used to traveling this time of year to different parts of the country to be with grandparents. And that's just not the wisest decision at this point,” she says. “We're going to have to be creative again, using Zoom and the phone, and if you have family in the area, you could do drive-by visits.” 

Dr. Leyse will invite her kids’ grandparents to Zoom while they open their presents. And she’s going to try to relish the simplicity of this year’s celebration. “Hopefully this will be the only holiday season that we have to stay apart, so I’m going to try to enjoy the special time with just our immediate family.”

Sarah Spengler, RN, infection prevention coordinator at UVM Health Network – Home Health & Hospice, comes from a large extended family and has many relatives who live nearby, including her 95-year-old grandmother who is in a long-term care facility that is not allowing visitors. Spengler and her partner will be “hunkering down” at home for the holidays, “which has been a really hard decision,” she says.

“We’ve had some difficult conversations with family, but the point I like to drive home is that I'm less worried about getting it from a loved one than I am about giving it to a loved one – because that would be really crushing to me,” she says. “I’m very careful, but we can’t fully eliminate risk.”

She says she will try to meet her father on Christmas day for a long, socially distanced walk – wearing a facemask – just the two of them. “That will fill me up,” she says.

Dr. Lahey intends to do something meaningful with his parents too. “You know, we all give the people we love gifts. But what they really want is to know that we love them. I feel that so much more poignantly this year because I miss my family so powerfully,” he says. “I'm trying to tell them regularly, more than I ordinarily would, because I don't want there to be any misunderstanding: I want my mom and dad to know that I love them.”

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