Eat, drink and be wary

Zoom magic shows. FaceTime gingerbread contests. Dinner in PJs. We asked COVID experts from coast to coast how they’ll spend the holidays; dozens told us what they’re doing to safely enjoy the season.

After a busy year advising on the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, University of Toronto immunologist Eleanor Fish is particularly excited to enjoy this holiday season with friends and family, albeit virtually.

During Hanukkah, which this year began on Dec. 10 and ends on Dec. 18, Fish lit candles with her daughter, son-in-law, and five grandchildren. (In Ontario, those who live alone can join one other household.) Her two other daughters and extended family members also planned to join in on Zoom.

While this year won’t be the usual big gathering, Fish and her family aren’t skipping out on any traditions, like their annual latke cook-off, which they planned to hold virtually with relatives in the United Kingdom. The family also organized a treasure hunt called Donkey Kong for each household to complete.

“We’ve made every effort to make this as joy-filled as possible,” she said in an interview.

Like many Canadians, Fish and other COVID-19 experts have had to make tough personal decisions about how to mark the winter holidays during the pandemic. Families are separated across households, and sometimes continents, parties are cancelled, and virtual dinners interrupted by poor internet connections. But they have expert knowledge of the impact of gathering on the spread of COVID-19, and all felt a personal responsibility to lead by example.

The Star reached out to about 200 experts, including Fish, with a short informal survey on their holiday plans, whether that involved celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or just enjoying some time off work. Seventy-eight epidemiologists, infectious disease experts, health analysts, virologists, immunologists, biostatisticians, a few PhD students and others – all engaging directly with COVID-19 – from coast to coast, responded.

The resounding message? The holidays aren’t cancelled. But they will be different.

Most of the experts who responded are celebrating with a special dinner or gathering (81 per cent); of those celebrating, almost 83 per cent are keeping it to household-only. Just over 17 per cent are seeing people outside of their household, with precautions, in line with the public health rules in their area. The guidance differs depending on where you live, so check with your local health unit for the most up-to-date guidance. With vaccines just beginning to roll out in Canada, many experts said it was important not to give up now, wanting to keep community members safe, protect front-line workers and avoid overwhelming hospitals.

But, from Zoom magic shows to virtual cocktail classes, campfires and FaceTime gingerbread house competitions, they’re proving to be a brain trust, not only of COVID-19 expertise, but fun ways to celebrate safely this year.

Some responses were short and sweet: “Am working in the ICU; no ability to travel. Also, pandemic.” (Dr. Srinivas Murthy, an infectious disease and critical care specialist and associate professor with the University of British Columbia.)

Others pulled at the heartstrings: “The holidays are about giving. I can’t think of a better gift than the gift of life for residents of long-term-care homes and other vulnerable community members.” (Dr. Doug Manuel, senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa.)

“We’ve been vigilant for so long and with vaccines in sight, why give up now?” asked Ronald Labonté, former Canada research chair in globalization and health equity at the University of Ottawa. He plans on ordering in a Christmas dinner for two, playing Scrabble with his wife (“if she’ll relent”) and “consuming gigabytes of video-streaming.”

“Not regretting the decision to forgo the usual family ensemble, too many of us are in the age-risk demographic!” he said.

University of Manitoba virologist Jason Kindrachuk stressed that keeping things simple does not mean we can’t recognize the historic work done this year by “researchers, clinicians and health-care workers across disciplines and global boundaries” to respond to COVID-19.

“We will celebrate the tireless work of all that have put their hearts and minds to this test,” he responded.

Nazeem Muhajarine, of the University of Saskatchewan, and his daughter Hannah at a previous Christmas celebration. “It is our family custom that dad and daughter make stollen together which we have on Christmas morning along with crepes (the latter is one of my specialties),” he says. Photo credit: Toronto Star

For many, such as Nazeem Muhajarine, professor and epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan, and Simon Bacon, professor of behavioural medicine at Concordia University, “It’s important to walk the talk.”

“I should practise what I preach,” said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, infectious diseases physician at Trillium Hospital.

Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said he usually hosts his in-laws, and holds “three feasts” with relatives from different households. “ALL of that is cancelled.”

Added Dr. David Fisman, who usually celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah with extended family: “We’ll just enjoy it twice as much next year.”

How are experts celebrating the winter holidays in 2020? By enjoying good food and wine, drinking eggnog, watching holiday movies, listening to music, baking, binge watching, decorating, sleeping in, spending time outdoors (snowshoeing, skiing, hiking, campfires), relaxing and recharging.

“We will have an enjoyable Christmas Day in our PJs and a delicious family dinner – likely in our PJs as well,” responded Keith Fowke, professor and Head Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Manitoba.

“We’ve been able to play some board games online so I’m looking forward to those (just no “Pandemic” please – it’s too relevant to work!)” said Peel Region epidemiologist Lydia Cheng.

A few are organizing gift drop-offs for family members outside their bubble. Amy Greer, Canada Research Chair in population disease modelling and associate professor at the University of Guelph, is planning a drive-thru light display with her kids.

Many mentioned supporting small businesses by sending treats and special foods purchased from local stores or giving back by donating to food banks. Fish’s daughter is organizing a toy drive for family members to donate to kids in need.

Like for everyone, the personal sacrifice is real.

“I work as an epidemiologist, but I am a mom, a daughter, a sister and an aunt,” said Cynthia Carr of Winnipeg. She is heartbroken that her son can’t come home for Christmas. But she’s planning on spending the holidays with her daughter and sending poinsettias to residents of long-term-care homes in her area.

“Find your own way to spread some cheer to someone else, but do it safely from a distance,” she suggested.

While Greta Bauer’s usual Hanukkah party – a feast of homemade sufganiyot jelly doughnuts – is on pause for 2020, the professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Western University is planning on dropping off warm pastries to her friends.

Connecting with loved ones virtually helps, too.

Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an Edmonton-based infectious diseases physician, is shown with his family. His COVID-safe holiday plans include a Zoom magic show organized by a family member. Photo credit: Toronto Star

Edmonton-based infectious diseases physician Dr. Ilan Schwartz’s kids will enjoy a Zoom magic show organized by a family member, alongside relatives in Manitoba, and California.

Laura Cowen, an associate professor of statistics at the University of Victoria, will play virtual board games with family in Japan, Edmonton, Delta, B.C., and Surrey, and video chat with other relatives in New Hampshire, Newfoundland and Hawaii.

In provinces with fewer COVID-19 cases where small gatherings are permitted, experts are taking extra health precautions such as wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing inside, gathering only with households inside the same bubble, or socializing outdoors. Some are planning on isolating for 14 days beforehand.

“In NL you are allowed to see people outside of your household. I will be spending Christmas with my partner’s parents and will be FaceTiming my own parents (who are in New Brunswick),” said Hannah Wallace, a PhD candidate at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

“Both my partner and I and his parents have been keeping our ‘bubbles’ quite small. And of course, if there are significant changes in the number of cases in Newfoundland then we will be adjusting our plans and staying by ourselves.”

Of course, experts, like the rest of us, are only human.

And the Zoom fatigue is real.

“We will somehow link in family virtually,” Kindrachuk said, “as there has been no greater joy in 2020 than having to continually tell people ‘we can’t hear you because you’re muted’ day after day on virtual chats.”

Posted with permission from Toronto Star. Original article available here.

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