Navigate family gatherings by setting a ‘comfort baseline’

"Jingle Bells" is on the radio again, wedding bells are sounding each week and event notifications are buzzing in the pockets of friends and loved ones.

Families are getting back together after more than a year apart, but the situation hasn't completely returned to normalcy just yet. The spread of COVID-19 is still a threat, especially to those who are already immunocompromised.

Infections and case count remain high in Kent County, with some of the highest numbers of COVID-positive patients coming into health centers since the pandemic began. At the time of publishing, there were 18 children with COVID-19 infections in the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, which is “higher than any time we’ve seen,” Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, M.D., MBA, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan, said in a mid-November media briefing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) holds that fully vaccinated individuals can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state or local laws, including the rules posted in workplaces and private businesses. The CDC further notes that the risk of spreading disease increases with indoor activities, poorly ventilated spaces and tight quarters where it is hard to stay at least 6 feet away from others who don’t live with you.

When it comes to family gatherings, the rules may be more nuanced. Parents and caregivers are often faced with hard decisions on how to protect their families. One reason why it can be difficult to understand the best way to stay safe is because not everyone is able to get vaccinated.

"Part of it is starting within your own family unit to identify what you're most comfortable with," says psychologist Dr. Lyndsay Volpe-Bertram.

Dr. Lyndsay Volpe-Bertram
Where a living situation involves a couple or more living within a single home, Volpe-Bertram recommends discussing each other's comfort level in regards to family gatherings. This sets a baseline for expectations, leading to other questions like whether or not people at the event are going to be vaccinated or are expected to wear masks.

"I think direct communication is really the best way. It's not always the most comfortable way, but it is the best way to get some of that data," Volpe-Bertram says.

Communicating with family can create a lot of emotions. There’s a natural inclination to want family members to be happy. This can lead to talking around issues to avoid sounding aggressive when presenting these questions, and it is possible to be clear and direct without giving the wrong impression, Volpe-Bertram says.

As far as an explanation goes, less is often more.

"People struggle with wanting to explain a lot about why they're asking — 'It's really important to me because I have kids in the house who aren't vaccinated,' or 'I have a partner who was immunocompromised,'" Volpe-Bertram says. "There's this desire to really make sure that the other person understands why we're asking and sometimes that can create even more complications, because the more information we give somebody the more opportunity there [is] for them to maybe pick it apart or argue with you.”

To keep it simple, Volpe-Bertram suggests something like, "Hey, my household is being cautious right now. Can I ask you a couple questions about what might happen during this gathering?"

This straightforward answer creates the least opportunity for argument, and hopefully succeeds in bringing in some clear data to help make an informed choice.

The CDC recommends anyone unvaccinated aged 2 or older to wear a mask in indoor public places, and recommends anyone consider wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings and for activities with close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated. There are many events at which some people are wearing masks, and others are not, but the choice to wear a mask is still an effective method of reducing the spread of serious disease. 

There are many variables that impact concerns about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Frontiers in Psychology, cultural dimensions tend to weigh heavier in the minds of individuals than do socio-economic variables when it comes to explaining worries about health and safety. The urge to stick with what we know and avoid what we don’t play heavily into decisions to wear a mask in public, or attend gatherings at all. 

The desire to avoid conflict can sometimes push people to make a choice that they are not entirely comfortable with. This is addressable by explaining to a family member or friend how important they are to you and letting them know how excited you are to spend time with them and do all of these things in a safe way, Volpe-Bertram says.

"I think noticing those emotions and reflecting on them even with the person can be really helpful because that way they know you know you're not just being a jerk," Volpe Bertram says. "It's not that you don't want to be there, or are not interested in participating. These are people you love, care about, and want to spend time with. But with the circumstances being the way they are, you're taking into account individual safety first."

With family gatherings back in swing, the CDC recommends that anyone who has come into close contact with someone with COVID-19 to be tested for infection and be prepared to quarantine if the test is positive. Individuals who are not fully vaccinated should get tested immediately, and again 5–7 days after their last exposure or immediately if symptoms develop. Fully vaccinated people should be tested 5–7 days after their last exposure.

In West Michigan especially, the latest wave of COVID-19 has put a strain on health centers that are already full of non-COVID care patients.

“These combinations, coupled with nationwide staffing issues and, quite honestly, just tremendous fatigue by all of our team members who've been battling this for the last year plus of huge volumes and very sick patients, the whole state is suffering right now,” says Dr. Elmouchi.

Those who take the right safety precautions before gathering and by making sure event spaces are safe ideally will have little to no issues enjoying the company of friends and family this holiday season. Whether from the comfort of home or in one of the refreshment areas throughout Grand Rapids, where expanded outdoor seating for restaurants and public areas that allow visitors to enjoy food or drink in a safe setting, there are many ways to have fun without running the risk of spreading disease.

This series is underwritten by Spectrum Health.

Matthew Russell is a writer and maker living in West Michigan. Matthew has over 20 years of experience as a journalist for various newspapers and magazines in the Midwest, has been published in two books about Grand Rapids history, and is currently improving his skills as an amateur apiarist while building a sustainable microfarm.