ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
If Thanksgiving taught us anything, it's that many Americans will ignore the warnings not to travel for the holidays during this pandemic. Now with Christmas coming up, the coronavirus numbers are even worse, and millions of Americans are still likely to travel, even as health experts tell us not to. So let's try thinking about this a different way. If people are going to visit family and friends despite the warnings, how can they reduce the risk that they will help spread this disease? Dr. Keri Althoff is a public health expert who teaches at Johns Hopkins University and joins us now.
KERI ALTHOFF: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: You've advised people that if they decide to travel against the advice of health experts, they have to start planning today, December 10. Why is this such an important day?
ALTHOFF: Well, this is an important day because if you're planning to visit someone who is very high risk for different types of negative health outcomes associated with coronavirus, then you want to be traveled at the end of today and start your quarantine in the location where you will be visiting that person. But if you're going to go visit someone else who may not be at high risk for complications related to coronavirus, then you could go with 10 days to spare. So again, you would travel and get there and quarantine for 10 days.
SHAPIRO: We know that testing is important, but it's not foolproof. So what other ways can people reduce risk if they do choose to gather this holiday season?
ALTHOFF: You definitely need to have a mask on. And we still encourage the outdoors more than the indoors as much as possible. I realize that a lot of places in this country right now are cold. But I think we've got to get creative here. So maybe reducing the amount of time that your celebration might last so it can be held outside with maybe some cozy blankets or some sort of source of heat outdoors, that can be really helpful.
SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the frame that we're using to talk about this because your background as an epidemiologist is in AIDS research. And one of the lessons of that epidemic is that abstinence-only messages are not effective. So how do you apply what you learned from the AIDS crisis to this pandemic?
ALTHOFF: You know, I think whenever we're talking about an infectious disease in particular, you just have to meet people where they are. Not everybody can put all of these different safety precautions in place because they don't have the resources to. And, you know, if you have somebody who you really think, man, this might just be our last Christmas together, you got to understand where people are coming from. With public health, everybody doing just a little bit goes a long way on a population level. So we don't want people to say, oh, all they're saying is, don't go, don't travel, and not give people that reinforcement that if you do decide to do this, here are ways to reduce your risk.
SHAPIRO: Right now, the virus is spreading so fast, and the death toll is so high, with more than 3,000 people in the U.S. dying yesterday alone. Is it better to be talking about reducing the risk, or should we just be warning people that isolation is the only option?
ALTHOFF: So I think any time you put a hard and fast only option on something, you're immediately going to lose people. And that can magnify. It can create a lot bigger risk on a population level. So at this time, absolutely if you can stay home, please, please do. You won't find a public health person or practitioner, anyone on the front lines in the health care setting who probably isn't begging you to stay home. But if you decide for very clear reasons that you need to see someone and you have a specific goal for that encounter, there are things you can do to keep yourself safer and to protect the other person you're going to see as well as your community when you return from that trip.
SHAPIRO: We know that the holidays can be the loneliest time for many people, especially older people, and yet it is elders who are most at risk for this disease. So how would you suggest the families balance those two considerations?
ALTHOFF: It's really, really hard not to see friends and family this holiday season because it's been a hard year. It's just been a hard year for so many people. I think we have to force ourselves to use more words and less physical contact to express our care and concern and love for one another. But it is really, really important that those individuals at highest risk for being isolated, that those individuals become a focus for us this holiday season, that we're sending them handwritten cards and packages in the mail, that were calling them. So it's making the time for that connection because we can't necessarily do it in person.
SHAPIRO: Professor Keri Althoff of Johns Hopkins University, thank you for talking with us.
ALTHOFF: Thank you for having me. Happy holidays.
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