Does this mean Christmas is cancelled? Your COVID-19 questions answered


We’re answering your questions about the pandemic. Send yours to [email protected], and we’ll answer as many as we can. We publish a selection of answers online and also put some questions to the experts during The National and on CBC News Network. So far, we’ve received more than 57,000 emails from all corners of the country.

In light of recent COVID-19 spikes throughout Canada, the trickiest part of the holidays might just be the planning. Reconciling your COVID-19 risk comfort level with your families could prove difficult. 

We’ve been hearing from Canadians who are concerned about what the holidays might look like, so we asked experts how best to negotiate gatherings this season.

Should we be cancelling our Christmas plans?

Kirsten Z. asked if she should cancel her holiday plans altogether.

First, it’s important to remember that officials and medical experts have been emphasizing that the large, extended family gatherings with family members from all over are not a good idea right now.

“Obviously the holidays will be different this year,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a news conference earlier this week. How different, he said, depends on where you live.

“Maybe the Atlantic bubble can be spared, depending on how well they’re able to maintain things and what their policy is,” said Dr. Susy Hota, medical director for infection prevention and control at University Health Network in Toronto.

However, in many other parts of the country with more concerning case counts, it’s not looking promising. 

Get-togethers are being discouraged in most places across the country. In Manitoba and some regions of Ontario, they’re not allowed at all.

WATCH | How to navigate the holiday season as the pandemic continues:

An infectious disease expert and epidemiologist answer questions about navigating the holiday season during the COVID-19 pandemic, including what lessons may have been learned from Thanksgiving. 5:51

“This won’t be a popular answer, but sadly I don’t think [family gatherings] will be a safe thing for us to do in most areas of Canada,” Hota said.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Zain Chagla agreed.

“It’s not looking hopeful that traditional things like Christmas dinner is happening,” said Chagla, who is an associate professor at McMaster University and consultant physician at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont.

“We’ve seen outbreaks associated with family dinners and sleepovers, and it’s just too much of a risk to the community to have another amplifying event.”

What if we isolate ourselves beforehand? 

Quebecers have been offered the option to quarantine themselves for a week before and a week after Christmas in exchange for the lifting of a ban on gatherings.

A number of you have written in asking if isolating before the holidays would make it OK to get together.

“I think it’s a pragmatic approach, informed in part by Canada’s experience over Thanksgiving.” said Dr. Matthew Oughton, an attending physician in the infectious diseases division at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, referring to Canadians who gathered despite warnings from public health officials. 

But he worries that due to the incubation period of COVID-19, which is sometimes longer than the seven days Quebec is advising, some may develop symptoms even after the second week of isolation and then spread the virus further. 

WATCH | Quebec’s holiday gathering rules

For four days, the rules that have kept Quebecers apart for months will be eased. But it’s not without risk. 4:39

Other experts worry that the idea is good in theory, but see flaws in its practicality. 

“I think there are too many holes in that strategy,” said Chagla. He pointed out there are just too many possibilities for someone to slip up and expose everyone to risk because isolation would require:

  • Adults working from home.

  • Keeping kids home from school.

  • Not going out in public at all, not even for groceries.

The notion also raises equity issues, noted Chagla, as many families simply don’t have the ability to isolate for 14 days due to work or other factors.

Hota agreed and said isolation would be unrealistic for most people.

“The problem is it’s very difficult to exclude contact from all people,” she said.

You’d also have to trust that everyone was being diligent.

“People start making their own judgments and decisions saying, ‘I got 11 out of 14 days and that’s good enough,'” said Hota. “That worries me about that strategy.”

But if we get negative test results, we’ll be okay, right?

Not necessarily.

Hota warned that a negative test could give you a false sense of security.

A nurse demonstrates testing at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing centre at the National Arts Centre garage on Nov. 18 in Ottawa, the day before it opened. Hota suggested negative COVID-19 test results could create a false sense of security during the holidays. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Testing isn’t always accurate, and whether results are accurate depend heavily on the timing.

“Testing really just tells you what your status is at the time you got tested,” Hota said. “It doesn’t tell you if you’re going to be developing the infections a couple of days from then, when you actually show up at your parents’ house.”

Is it safe to give and receive presents, cards or cookies?

Both Chagla and Hota agreed that gift giving and dropping off baked goods is safe, provided that you take the necessary precautions like distancing and hand hygiene.

“Once you wrap and give or receive your gift, just make sure to wash your hands,” said Hota.

If it’s a washable item, such as clothes, Hota suggested you launder them, which you should be doing with new clothing anyway.

However, she said it’s not necessary to wipe everything down with disinfectants the way we were early in the pandemic.

“We’re learning, over time, that the virus doesn’t really last on surfaces for that long, particularly on clothing,” she said in an earlier article.

A box wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper waits to be loaded after being sorted. Infectious disease specialist Dr. Zain Chagla said one way to be extra safe when exchanging gifts is to deliver them, let them sit overnight and open them together the next day — virtually. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

As for the exchange itself, Chagla said doing it while physically distanced, with masks and outdoors would be “a great option” if your local public health agency allows it. But in Toronto, for example, even outdoor socializing is being discouraged.

And if you wanted to take an extra precaution, Chagla suggested leaving the presents under the tree overnight before opening them together the next morning — virtually.

How do I tell Mom we’re not coming for Christmas?

We’ve heard from Canadians who have made the decision to stay home, but still want to know: What’s the best way to tell their family that they’re not coming over?

“Frame your message in terms of family-related considerations,” said Igor Grossmann, associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo.

He suggests telling your loved ones that you aren’t coming “not because you are trying to be selfish, but in fact, because you care about them and you care about your elderly parents.”

But what if they get mad or think you are overreacting?

One thing that’s important to keep in mind is you need to be compassionate and remain calm, according to Grossmann. 

“Don’t make any accusations, and don’t make them feel bad,” he said.

People can be quick to assume others are just being selfish and that’s the reason they are not following the rules and recommendations from public health officials, Grossman added.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. It may be the case for some people, but often it’s a lack of proper information.”

WATCH | Why a January COVID-19 could be particularly problematic:

There is a lot going on in Quebec hospitals in January – more injuries, respiratory illnesses and cardiac episodes. And as infectious disease specialist Dr. Cécile Tremblay explains, that is also when COVID cases from Christmas will start to pop up, another source of stress on the health-care system. 0:53

Instead, Grossmann suggests asking them where they are getting their information and asking them to offer their perspective. Then explain to them why you think the way you think and where your sources come from.

“The best strategy is to engage in a dialogue where you don’t discount their opinion but instead elaborate on their sources,” he said. “This type of dialogue may often help people realize that their beliefs are based on misinformed opinions.”

If you’re looking to do some research before you run into this type of situation, make sure you are drawing information from trusted resources, such as the Public Health Agency of Canada, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

How do I talk to family/friends that don’t take the pandemic seriously or think it’s just the flu?

“The worst thing that you can do in this type of situation is tell them that they are stupid and they are wrong, because as research has shown, that will right away lead to them shutting off and not listening,” said Grossmann.

Even if you may not have much common ground to stand on, it’s still important to open up the dialogue and have a conversation, rather than an argument.

What happens if we go and they’re not taking precautions?

So you’ve talked about it and decided to visit with a small family bubble, but you get to Grandma’s house and nobody is following the rules you laid out. What next?

Don’t panic or overreact to anything, Grossmann said. You can still control things like wearing a mask and the amount of distance you put between yourself and others.

“You can always take a step back,” he said. “If someone gets too close to you, you can communicate to them: ‘Is it okay if I take a step back?'”

Above all else, Grossmann underscored the idea that if you don’t feel comfortable or if it goes against common sense you probably shouldn’t do it.



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