According to the National Retail Federation, approximately 65% of people in the U.S. plan to participate in Halloween-related activities this year and households with children are more likely to celebrate Halloween traditions like handing-out candy and trick-or-treating.
While the current state of the pandemic may feel like we are in a different place than Fall 2020, University of Minnesota Medical School expert Beth Thielen explains why it is still important for parents and community members to practice COVID precautions while celebrating Halloween this year.
Q: What do we know about SARS-CoV-2 now that we did not know a year ago?
Dr. Thielen: The most important factor that we did not fully anticipate a year ago is how the novel variants — most notably the delta variant — have changed the course of this disease. Many people are frustrated that it seems like the rules of the game are changing. We are back to wearing masks indoors, being advised against gathering in large groups and hearing about health care facilities being overwhelmed by the large number of COVID-patients despite having an effective vaccine.
The main reason for this is the fact that the delta variant is much more infectious that previous strains. It is causing severe disease, hospitalization and death in younger people — including children — which we did not see as commonly a year ago. Along these lines, we are seeing infections even among vaccinated people and even in spaces that, last year, we thought were safer, such as outdoor gatherings. The good news is that the vaccine is still highly effective in preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death, which means it is critical for everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated to do so as soon as possible. This is particularly important for teenagers, who are making up a larger fraction of those we are seeing infected.
Q: How are traditional Halloween activities during a pandemic a concern for Minnesotans?
Dr. Thielen: Many Halloween traditions involve activities that we know are a risk for spread of SARS-CoV-2. Trick-or-treating often involves face-to-face contact with many people and touching common items, like candy buckets, that can easily become contaminated with viruses. Here in Minnesota, late October means cooler weather, so we are more likely to be indoors for activities like crowded costume parties or haunted houses. For many of us, Halloween is about scary activities and screaming, which can generate more respiratory droplets that can travel farther and spread infection.
Even though outdoors activities are generally safer, we have seen more infections with the delta variant occuring outdoors so this year. We would still recommend taking precautions like wearing face covering, limiting the size of gatherings and maintaining physical distance even outdoors.
Q: For parents, what are safe alternatives to traditional trick-or-treating?
Dr. Thielen: Many of us are disappointed that we cannot participate in traditional Halloween activities. The good news is that, even though Halloween will look different again, this year, there are still lots of ways for families to have fun and stay healthy. Some of the safer options include:
- carve and decorate pumpkins with your household and share them outdoors at a distance with neighbors and friends;
- plan an outdoor scavenger hunt looking for Halloween-themed items;
- watch a Halloween-themed movie remotely via Zoom, or other video sharing platform, or watch it outdoors if physical distancing can be maintained;
- decorate a Halloween-themed cake or cookies; and
- walk outdoors at a pumpkin patch or orchard where distance can be maintained.
Q: What can people do to help lower the risk of spreading COVID-19 and other viruses during Halloween activities?
Dr. Thielen: These are some actions people can take to help lower the risk of spreading COVID-19:
- Get vaccinated if you are eligible. Booster doses are now being offered for those over the age of 65, those with health conditions like cancer or transplants and those with heavy occupational exposure, such as people who work in healthcare or schools.
- Get vaccinated against seasonal influenza if you are able. Most people over six months old are eligible. You cannot get the flu from the flu shot.
- Focus on activities that can be done with members of your household or outdoors in places where physical distancing can be maintained.
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer or wash your hands frequently with soap and water.
- Wear a face covering over your nose and mouth when you are around people outside your household.
- If you are sharing candy or other treats, consider handing out individually wrapped “grab-and-go” goodie bags, rather than directly handing treats to children.
- If you plan to get together with people from outside your household, limit the size of gatherings and practice precautions for a few weeks before to avoid bringing an uninvited guest — like SARS-CoV-2 — to the party.
- If anyone in your household is feeling unwell, it is best to stay home to avoid spreading infection to other people. This is good advice to prevent other infections like influenza, as well.
Q: As we await Centers for Disease Control guidance on COVID-19 vaccination for kids under the age of 12, what do people need to know about navigating the upcoming holiday season?
Dr. Thielen: We had some good news recently that the data supporting the safety and efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine in children ages 5-11 has been submitted to the FDA for review. Pediatricians expect that we may see an emergency use authorization for the vaccine in children ages 5-11 before the end of the year. Children 12 and older can get the vaccine today, and I encourage parents to do so as soon as possible, particularly for children with underlying medical conditions that put them at risk for severe disease. We are seeing more severe disease in teens who are not yet vaccinated, and it is important for families to know that the risk of serious heart and lung disease is much greater for natural infection than it is from the vaccine. Also, the COVID vaccine can be given at the same time as other vaccines.
Beth Thielen, MD, PhD, is an adult and pediatric infectious diseases physician at the U of M Medical School and M Health Fairview. Her research is focused on the molecular epidemiology and viral pathogenesis of human respiratory viral infections. Her clinical interests include clinical immunology, immunocompromised patients and travel medicine.