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'Don’t want it to be our last Christmas' — navigating holiday travel plans amidst pandemic

Health experts say it's important to consider family members' pre-existing conditions and risks when planning for holiday travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

SEDGWICK, Maine — For 73-year-old Ruth Howell of Sedgwick, the 2020 holidays were supposed to be full of excitement and new beginnings. She hasn't seen her son, Joshua Klastow, in a few years — and she was looking forward to meeting his new fiancé, Yvonne Morrison, whom he proposed to this year. Like so many other things, though, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench in those plans.

"My son called recently and said they’d like to visit for Christmas, and, of course, I was very excited to get together," Howell told NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. "Then, I started thinking about it."

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For Howell, a main cause of concern is her health. She had a heart valve repair about nine years ago, and during the surgery, she succumbed to a heart attack and a stroke. Now, she says she has heart damage as a result. It's why she and her husband, John, have been taking a number of precautions during the coronavirus pandemic — one of those includes postponing a family visit. Howell says her son and his fiancé live in Florida — the state with the third highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases. 

"We’d love to get together for Christmas, like everyone would with (their) family, but we don’t want it to be our last Christmas either," Howell explained.

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It's a tough conversation many families are navigating, as Halloween creeps closer — which means Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and the New Year are all on the horizon. Health experts like Dr. James Jarvis, senior vice president and physician executive at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, say it's important to consider a number of factors regarding travel, including:

  • Where would guests be traveling from? Do they live in an exempt state with a low prevalence of disease or a non-exempt state?
  • Would your guests choose to get tested when they leave their state, or when they arrive in Maine? Would they quarantine?
  • How would your guests be traveling? Experts say flying is fairly safe right now because most airports are taking precautions -- but it's still a confined space. If your guests are driving a long distance, they might have to stay at a hotel, which experts say can be risky.
  • What are the health conditions of family members and loved ones?  Pre-existing conditions like heart or lung disease, cancer, and obesity can all lead to greater risk. 

If your family decides to have an in-person get together, Dr. Jarvis and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, say you should take precautions by using good hygiene, social distancing, and using face coverings, even inside of the home. You should also try to have some separation for at least the first three days of being together to watch out for symptoms of COVID-19 — and you should have a plan for what to do if someone becomes sick. 

Dr. Shah says testing is one of the best ways to try to ensure safe holiday celebrations, but the only total guarantee is by choosing to celebrate together apart.

"The fact of the matter is, if you contracted the virus on Monday, you travel on Wednesday, get your test on Thursday — there may not have been enough time for you to have developed enough of the viral load for any of those tests to be positive," Dr. Jarvis explained to NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. "Then you become sick on Friday."

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Experts say if you choose to forgo normal festivities and not have contact with others, it's important to prioritize mental health. Dr. Jarvis says you can do so by celebrating the holidays virtually via video call, or by simply calling loved ones on the phone during the season more often than usual.