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'Have some difficult discussions:' Ottawa medical officer gives advice on holiday gatherings amid COVID surge

Limiting contacts, getting booster shots and taking antigen tests are just a few ways to make the holiday season safer in 2021.
Christmas Dinner

It's not going to be the holiday that Ottawa residents had been hoping for, but there are still safe ways to enjoy the season and see at least some loved ones, according to Ottawa Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches.

It starts with keeping indoor gatherings as small as possible and limiting close contacts outside of that group.

Vaccination statuses of the people in that group also matter, but Dr. Etches says the criteria has changed a bit, the further residents get from the date they got their second shots against COVID-19.

"When you're considering vaccination status now, we also need to think about, 'Does somebody have their booster dose,'" she explained at a news conference, Thursday, December 16. "Especially if they're an older adult, more vulnerable to severe infection."

Other ways to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission include opening windows to increase ventilation and making sure well-fitted masks are being worn.

"Have some difficult discussions. Think about what's most important to you. These are really hard decisions," said Dr. Etches. "It's a challenge because we were all looking forward to the holidays and being able to meet with people. I think the bottom line message is the fewer contacts we have, the better at this time."

Another idea that the medical officer supports is having everyone in your group get a rapid antigen test before getting together.

"Our understanding of their ability to detect infection that is contagious, like when someone has COVID and they're in the time of being able to pass it on, [the rapid antigen tests] have been demonstrated to be more useful than we previously thought, especially when there's high levels of COVID in the community."

But there are limits to the tests, says Dr. Etches. There's no guarantee of no COVID with a negative rapid test because the test won't pick it up if it's too early in the infection.

Although this new wave of Omicron may be making the holiday season feel like a re-run of last year, Dr. Etches is reminding the public that Ottawa is in a much better place now than it was before Christmas of 2020. Long-term care patients didn't have double-vaccine protection, for instance.

"I think it's important for people to realize, what they did has helped. It's kept [COVID-related] death and hospitalization [rates] lower and it's enabled children to be in school. These are things we want to keep in place and it's why we do need to take these actions to limit our contacts now."

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