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COVID-19 and the holidays: Is it finally safe to gather?

Experts weigh in on how to celebrate safely.
/ Source: TODAY

As the United States prepares to enter another holiday season amid the coronavirus pandemic, doctors and public health experts are offering some advice on how to stay safe during the coming festivities.

While the country is still dealing with high rates of transmission in some places, the current surge seems to be ending, with case counts dropping nationwide. However, public health experts are still keeping an eye on the coming winter months, where people are more likely to gather indoors.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that for fully vaccinated people, gathering for the holidays is safe.

"I believe strongly that, particularly in the vaccinated people, if you’re vaccinated and your family members are vaccinated, those who are eligible — that is obviously very young children are not yet eligible — that you can enjoy the holidays," said Fauci on ABC's "This Week" in October. "You can enjoy Halloween, trick-or-treating and certainly Thanksgiving with your family and Christmas with your family."

While previous guidance for gathering during the pandemic emphasized mingling only with members of your household, the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are more loose this year.

"Holiday traditions are important for families and children. There are several ways to enjoy holiday traditions and protect your health," said the agency in an update issued last week.

However, unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated people should be more cautious and take measures like wearing a mask, gathering outside and getting tested in advance of any celebrations.

"If you are unvaccinated, the guidance is not going to really differ all that much from last year for obvious reasons," said Dr. Natalie Azar, NBC News' medical correspondent.

What precautions should I take?

While vaccinated people will be largely safe to celebrate the holidays as normal, the CDC does advise taking some precautions, especially if you are traveling or gathering with large groups. Azar said that this advice may be cautious, but is correct.

‘When the CDC says it’s safest to be with your household, better to be outdoors than indoors, wear a mask even if you’re vaccinated inside in a crowded space, they are technically not incorrect," Azar explained.

Precautions like moving a celebration outdoors, keeping doors and windows open or running a window fan can help prevent any breakthrough cases of COVID-19, and keeping your circle small will limit the possible sources of infection.

If you are unvaccinated, you should certainly follow these procedures, according to Dr. Karl Minges, the interim dean of the school of health sciences at the University of New Haven. If your gathering includes people who are both vaccinated and unvaccinated, Minges said it's better to plan for a more cautious gathering.

"Overall, I think the holidays this year will look a lot more like what we're used to than last year, especially in places where there is a high vaccination rate," Minges said. "I think it will still look similar in places where there's a low vaccination rate, but we'll just see a lot more incidence of disease in those areas."

Can I travel for holiday celebrations this year?

Minges said that travel is where he would advise the most caution, especially if people are going from areas with high rates of vaccination to areas with lower rates, or from areas that are have low transmission rates to those that have higher rates. People traveling from areas with more disease to areas with less disease should also be cautious and take extra precautions to avoid beginning an outbreak.

"I think travel is important to address this holiday season, and knowing that the virus is still very present and will likely be continue to be very present in many areas of this country, so people need to be vigilant," said Minges.

The CDC also recommends that families and friends who are traveling to be together take extra precautions.

"If you are gathering with a group of people from multiple households and potentially from different parts of the country, you could consider additional precautions (e.g., avoiding crowded indoor spaces before travel, taking a test) in advance of gathering to further reduce risk," said the agency in their newly-released guidance.

Azar also emphasized the importance of testing. A PCR test can be taken a few days before the gathering, while a rapid test can be taken the day before the gathering. Rapid tests can be particularly helpful after travel.

"Cover your bases," Azar advised.

How can unvaccinated children celebrate the holidays?

Children over the age of five can get vaccinated, but anyone younger is still not eligible for the vaccine. However, children under the age of five will probably not be vaccinated before late 2021, according to most predictions.

Right now, the CDC says that the best way adults can protect children is get them vaccinated — and make sure that all adult attendees to any holiday celebrations are vaccinated.

"Because many generations tend to gather to celebrate holidays, the best way to minimize COVID-19 risk and keep your family and friends safer is to get vaccinated if you’re eligible," said the agency.

Other precautions — like keeping distance, wearing masks, maintaining proper hand hygiene and making sure that there is some air flow if the event is indoors — still apply.