Mask up, vax up and coordinate holiday gatherings

With COVID rates rising, along with RSV and the flu, health officials are again urging caution. Infectious-diseases specialists offer tips. 

As holiday gatherings and associated travel increase this week and next, what can we do protect ourselves and our loved ones?

Across the nation, public health restrictions were rolled back months ago, but now officials are again urging caution, citing rising COVID-19 rates, along with RSV and the flu. Drs. John Lynch and Seth Cohen, both infectious-diseases experts at UW Medicine, offer these perspectives.

“The holiday season for many people include getting on planes, trains automobiles and so forth. And we know that masks aren't required in pretty much any of these settings anymore,” said Lynch, medical director of infection prevention and control at Harborview Medical Center.

Even so, he advised people to be masked indoors and in crowds — and noted the renewed parallel recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I've flown over the last year and our airports, our airplanes and other similar terminals are as full as they've ever been,” Lynch said.  “I think that's a great time to wear a mask with so much circulating right now.”

Lynch said he will confirm that the people in his holiday circles have received vaccine boosters. Immunocompromised people should consider forgoing any potentially crowded gatherings, he said, since drugs such as Evusheld, which helped COVID-infected patients stave off serious illness earlier in the pandemic, are far less effective now. 

Cohen, medical director of infection prevention at UW Medical Center-Northwest, always wears a mask in airports.

“I mask when I travel, mostly because I’m always nervous about the potential of spreading COVID to vulnerable family members,” he said. “More important than masking in-flight, however, is masking at the airport or when you are in line for the flight, when ventilation is not ideal and there are crowds of people nearby.”

If an immunocompromised person might attend a holiday gathering, other partygoers should be asked to confirm they are vaccinated and current on boosters, Cohen said.

“Staying up-to-date with vaccines is still the best way to protect people who are immunocompromised or at high risk for complications from infection. More importantly, this means surrounding people who are immunocompromised with others who are also fully vaccinated. We call this the 'immune cocoon,' he said.”

If you feel ill — even if the at-home COVID test is negative — say home, both doctors stressed.

“Even if you test negative for COVID, viruses like flu and RSV can have serious consequences in small children, pregnant people and older or otherwise vulnerable individuals,” Cohen said.

– Barbara Clements,, 253-740-5043

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