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Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: How to have safe — and cordial — holiday gatherings

Thanksgiving table (copy)

With COVID-19 looming over another holiday season, conversations about vaccination and masking are inevitable. 

LENOX — Flipping the pages of my desk calendar, I’m alarmed to see that Thanksgiving is less than three weeks away, and for the second straight year, planning or attending a gathering remains problematic and potentially risky.

Since time seems to spin by especially rapidly in November and December, it’s high time to figure out how we minimize COVID-19 risk when cases are on the rise here and examples of “breakthrough” infections among the 66 percent of Berkshire residents fully vaccinated (73 percent of those 12 years old and up) can’t be ignored.

This is no time for delicacy and etiquette. If we get an invitation to attend a holiday feast, it’s not only smart, but absolutely necessary, to ask the host, “Is everyone who’ll be there vaccinated? And will we all wear masks except when eating or drinking?”

If the answer is either “no,” “I’m not sure” or “I don’t feel comfortable asking guests that question,” my response would be, “Many thanks, but that doesn’t work for me.”

Likewise, if I were hosting a Thanksgiving dinner or any other seasonal gathering in the next few weeks, I would insist on guests having been jabbed (twice) and arriving masked. For those who might resist, the only thing to say is, “We’re trying to keep everyone safe. See you next year, hopefully.”

All this seems like common sense, especially since Berkshire County remains in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention category of a high transmission rate for COVID, and caseloads have been ticking up, as you can see in The Eagle’s daily Checkup or on The New York Times’ interactive tracker.

The seven-day rolling average of cases in the county is the highest since January of this year.

Various polls continue to show a hardcore group of 25 percent of Americans who refuse to be vaccinated. No wonder a recent survey found that, among vaccinated respondents, more than half were either “extremely” or “considerably” hesitant to spend the holidays with unvaccinated family members or friends.

Still, it’s a sensitive issue for many. As public health professor Noel Brewer at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill has pointed out, the traditional advice for dinner conversation “is to avoid sex, death and politics. Vaccinations have moved onto that list.”

In his view, “People who get vaccinated can also be self-righteous, and some people who haven’t been vaccinated can be belligerent. That could really be a combustible mix.”

I’d argue that those of us who are vaccinated need to be vigilant, especially considering the risks for those who are immunocompromised and for kids not yet protected. The challenge for many is considering whether to forgo gatherings with unvaccinated family members or close friends we haven’t seen for many months.

Just as mandates are quite effective in getting shots into arms, especially for people who otherwise might lose their jobs, vaccine skeptics might be encouraged to become immunized if the reward is to attend a holiday gathering.

The CDC’s holiday guidance calls for protecting those not yet eligible to be inoculated by encouraging hosts and guests to be vaccinated. An additional precaution would be a COVID test two or three days before mingling with people from multiple households in different parts of the country.

Rapid antigen tests, which can be taken at home and cost about $24 for a package of two, are considered reasonably reliable for anyone contagious, so, they’re a recommended safeguard.

“If a rapid test says you’re positive, then that is a very reliable indication that you are infected and infectious,” according to Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health. “You should not be around other people.”

Politics can be debated or avoided at the Thanksgiving table, but vaccination should never have become a partisan issue.

“We have very clear evidence as to why we need Americans to be vaccinated against COVID-19,” said Timothy Callaghan, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health. “Whereas with politics, there are two sides, and both sides can be heard. But, the big difference is that your choice to vaccinate has a huge impact not on only on yourself, but on society as a whole.”

To put it another way, those who wave the banner of personal freedom to justify their anti-vax stand are risking other people’s freedom and health.

As Melody Butler, executive director of the advocacy group Nurses Who Vaccinate, pointed out, there’s at least one way to try to change someone’s mind.

“What’s really important is to let them know that you want them to be vaccinated because you care,” she said. “You want them to be around for next Thanksgiving.”

So, the bottom line for the upcoming holiday season: Proceed with caution, don’t be fearful of ruffling people’s feathers, but do everything possible and within reason to minimize risks to yourself, family members and friends.

Information from the CDC and The New York Times was included in this commentary. Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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