In a nation fatigued by social distancing and dying to escape loneliness, the inimitable Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued recommendations for how to have a “safe” holiday season. Spoiler: A CDC-compliant season will not be “the most wonderful time of the year.”
Our national public health experts have steered us confidently through some murky waters. After all, how else would we know that public mask use, which the CDC used to discourage, is “more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine”? So when they release neat bullet points categorizing group activities based on COVID-19 risk and encourage “virtual-only activities,” they convey that avoiding the Wuhan virus is the only thing that matters in the whole wide world.
According to the CDC, virtually every traditional activity you used to do over the holidays with people outside your household is “high risk,” despite the CDC’s own “best estimate” that COVID-19 has a 99.98 percent survival rate for anyone under the age of 50 and a 99.5 percent survival rate for anyone under 70. From the CDC’s point of view, the more you seek to connect with others and include those who are supposed to be isolated, to share some common traditions and a bit of fun in the shadow of the most contentious presidential election of our lifetimes, the more reckless you are being.
The Holidays Aren’t Socially Distant
Let’s start with Halloween. Trick-or-treating is labeled “high risk,” despite it being a series of brief outdoor interactions between neighbors and children, who rarely spread COVID-19 and almost never get seriously ill from it. Apparently, the CDC thinks you’re summoning the restless spirit of coronavirus if you hold a bowl of candy out for children instead of leaving goodie bags on your doorstep.
Pumpkin patch and apple orchard visits should also be masked and socially distanced to be considered only “moderate risk,” along with any other outdoor activities, such as hayrides or community movie viewings where people aren’t spaced more than six feet apart. Despite this classification, cases of outdoor transmission appear to be very rare.
A preprinted review considering about 25,000 cases found very few instances of outdoor transmission, with one particular study in China of more than 1,200 confirmed outbreak-related cases of COVID-19 revealing only two such instances. The authors suggested the dearth of evidence for outdoor transmission of COVID-19 “in everyday life can be taken to be evidence of absence of a meaningful risk of outdoor transmission,” though they noted the risk of transmission increases “when the natural social distancing of everyday life is breached.”
Is trick-or-treating riskier than shopping along a busy street? Evidence suggests not, but the CDC overlords insist they’re both dangerous.
As for Thanksgiving — the day Americans dedicate to family time, cooking and eating food together, and packing into the living room to watch football — the CDC would like to know: Are you trying to get Grandma killed? They would prefer you forego spending any time with people who don’t live under your roof for any holiday (seriously), especially if you’re at a “higher risk for severe illness.” Clearly, everyone over 65 should Zoom into holiday gatherings. That’s just as good, right?
Loneliness Is an Epidemic
Sarcastic hyperbole barely exceeds the reality of the CDC’s recommendations, which contradict years of medical wisdom about the dangers of social isolation. Loneliness has been an epidemic in this country for some time, bringing not just misery, but serious health risks the CDC apparently isn’t considering in the context of COVID-19.
As I wrote back in April, “Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues … are only exacerbated in isolation, and can have severe health consequences,” with prolonged loneliness lowering life expectancy as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, steepening the slide into dementia and bringing for older Americans a “60 percent increased risk of functional decline and a 45 percent greater risk of death,” according to a national study. Loneliness has even shown itself to be deadly in locked-down nursing homes, as in the tragic case of 95-year-old Rita Thomas, who stopped eating to escape the misery of isolation.
As Dr. Claire Pomeroy, president of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, noted, “Biologists have shown that feelings of loneliness trigger the release of stress hormones that in turn are associated with higher blood pressure, decreased resistance to infection, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.”
Despite such ample evidence that social isolation is itself a health risk, the CDC would have us believe the best way to love our elderly neighbors, who are especially prone to these harms, is to stay away from them.
Social visits and community activities during the holidays have been an antidote to loneliness, however, and we need them now more than ever. Who hasn’t seen the faces of lonely neighbors light up when giggling, costumed children appear on their doorsteps? Who can deny the joy grandparents find in taking their grandkids out for hot chocolate and parade-watching, or regaling them with tales from “the good old days” after Thanksgiving dinner?
The presence of loved ones, or even just friendly faces, is especially needed for older adults who’ve suffered the loss of a spouse or child. Without bright celebrations and feeling included by others, the holidays can turn from a cheerful time to a period of darkness and loneliness, perhaps worse than any time in the last six months. The absence of light where it is expected is more depressing than a predictable trip through the dark.
We Desperately Need Human Connection
These recommendations will hurt young people as well. In August, the CDC reported 25 percent of those aged 18 to 24, already an extremely lonely cohort, seriously considered suicide in past 30 days, and more than 60 percent of that age group reported anxiety or depressive disorder.
After months of isolation, millions of children and teens still haven’t been allowed to return to school and their normal in-person social connections. Signs indicate suicide among young teens might be on the rise at a time of year suicides are supposed to be low. Is it any wonder?
According to analysis in a rapid systematic review of 60 studies on the mental health effects of loneliness in children, “Losing links to other people and feeling excluded can result in an affective response of depression.” Having been deprived of the school’s social environment, children and young adults especially need holiday festivities and gatherings to connect with others face to face.
With the CDC’s own survey results from August showing 13 percent of respondents started or increased substance abuse, 10 percent have considered suicide in the past 30 days, and the rate of depressive disorder roughly quadrupling compared to the same period last year, one would think the CDC would double down on previous guidance concerning suicide risk, suggesting states and communities “offer activities that bring people together so they feel connected and not alone.” Instead, the CDC is discouraging connection.
The nation is already divided to the point of fracture. We desperately need activities that stimulate community cohesion, from cheering sports teams, to parades, trick-or-treating, and attending tree-lighting ceremonies. Yet events such as these have already been canceled in some places. As The Federalist editor Joy Pullmann told me, “It’s like nobody even cares about anything we do together at all. … At this level of concern for safety, we’ll never come out of our Netflix bunkers ever again.”
The CDC must stop trying to keep people alive (or even from even getting sick or testing positive) only to keep them from living. If those at higher risk for COVID-19 want to celebrate life with loved ones in a normal way despite the small chance they’ll get the virus, it is cruel to deny them that or shame them for it. It is equally cruel to pressure low-risk individuals into canceling holiday festivities.
Life is about more than keeping viruses at bay, so don’t accept the CDC’s recommendations as gospel truth. You decide with your friends and family what mitigation measures and levels of “risk” are acceptable. However you choose to celebrate, try to connect in person with those around you and make this the most joyous and inclusive holiday season yet.