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What a medical officer of health wants you to consider this holiday

This holiday season in Nova Scotia will look like no other. There are strict gathering limits across the province and many traditional seasonal activities have been cancelled or are available only online. It might be tempting to let down our guard and stick to our usual Christmas routines.This isn’t the year to do that, cautions Dr. Daniela Kempkens, medical officer of health for the Nova Scotia Health’s Eastern Zone.

“Try to think of those around you. For one year, do less social activity than you normally would like,” she says. “We’re all suffering from having less personal interaction with our loved ones, but this is the year to do that in the hopes that next year will be better.”

Nova Scotians can still – carefully and safely – celebrate the season and connect with loved ones. First, stick to whatever gathering restrictions are in place for where you live. The numbers allowed may change – pay attention to updates announced for the holidays.

“Limit your contact to the most important people in your life,” Dr. Kempkens says. “That way you don’t run the risk of bringing in COVID-19 from a more informal social gathering home to your loved ones and potentially home to your grandparents or other older relatives or friends who could be at a higher risk for developing more serious COVID-19 symptoms.”

Note that “no-risk” contact means only connecting on the phone or online, she explains, or if you are driving by or outside somebody’s window with their window closed.

“Anything that’s outside is lower risk. A walk on the beach, in the woods or in the neighbourhood while socially distanced – unless it’s a person from within your close social bubble – that’s a great activity to do,” Dr. Kempkens says. As soon as people move inside with those who are not part of their household, contact becomes a riskier activity, except for transient contacts such as shoppers quickly passing by one another in a store.

Masks are required for all indoor public places, she says. A key thing to remember throughout the holidays is that if you are feeling unwell, do not go anywhere where other people are gathered. If you meet the criteria for COVID-19 testing, get it done and do not try to wait out your symptoms.

For those who have travelled outside of Nova Scotia, whether for work, school or other reasons, they need to keep up on the province’s current self-isolation requirements. These may look different for different people.

“Nova Scotians have a responsibility to protect those around us, especially if you come back from an area where there are much higher case numbers and a higher rate per 100,000 than what we’re seeing here,” Dr. Kempkens says. “Chances are you’ve been exposed to a higher degree to COVID-19 and more than once, so your risk of developing COVID-19 is higher. You want to make sure that you’re not that person to bring it back to Nova Scotia.”

Even if in-person celebrations can’t happen, there are still risk-free ways to reach out and connect with loved ones. Dr. Kempkens suggests sending family letters, Christmas cards or physical photographs, especially for older family members.

“If you know somebody who is isolating, you can drop off prepared meals, meal kits, magazines, anything that may make the life of the person easier,” she says. “We hear so much about mindfulness and to be in the moment, so sitting down and writing a Christmas card or maybe baking cookies for someone and being in that moment, concentrating on that intention to bring joy to somebody else, can be hopeful and healing.”

While it may be tempting to ignore restrictions “just this once,” Dr. Kempkens strongly advises against making exceptions this holiday season.

If everybody thinks ‘just this one time,’ it’s going to be almost one million ‘just this one time’ in Nova Scotia. It was exactly that kind of socializing—in informal ways and not within consistent groups of 10—that led to the exponential increase in case numbers for a couple of weeks before the partial lockdown in Halifax came into effect.”

She recommends having those hard conversations about not seeing extended family or friends ahead of time so there is no pressure over the holidays to break the rules.

“Given that there are vaccines on the horizon, which will begin to roll out to certain groups in the next few weeks and months, coupled with sticking to our small social groups, next year’s holiday season is much more likely to have restrictions lifted,” she says. “I’m a strong believer that most people in Nova Scotia want to do the right thing. They have been adhering to these measures since March, and that gives me hope – that feeling that we are truly in this together.”