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How to keep parties, dinners and other gatherings COVID-safe over Christmas

As the holiday season begins, many of us are looking forward to switching off and spending time with family and friends. To keep things COVID-safe over the festive season, here's what the experts recommend.

As the weather warms up and the holiday season begins, many of us are looking forward to switching off and spending time with family and friends.

Ninety per cent of Australians aged 16 and older are fully vaccinated, and all state borders — except for Western Australia — have opened in time for Christmas.

But with escalating COVID-19 cases and the arrival of the fast-spreading Omicron variant, health experts are encouraging people to be mindful of COVID-19 as they mix with others outside their home.

"It's a tricky message," said Hassan Vally, epidemiologist at Deakin University.

"We need to enjoy that social connection and celebration, because those things are really important. We've got to do that and not be overly anxious."

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At the same, Dr Vally said it was important to limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission, particularly if we're spending time with people at higher risk of serious disease.

"There is a way we can approach the festive season that allows us to enjoy our freedoms, but at the same time, be sensible," he said.

"Especially with the Omicron variant, we can't totally relax."

To keep things COVID-safe over the festive season, here's what the experts recommend.

If you're eligible, get your booster

The best way to protect yourself from COVID-19 (and to reduce your risk of passing it on to someone else) is to get vaccinated — and a booster shot when you're eligible.

The federal government recently cut the waiting time for boosters from six months to five, meaning 4.1 million Australians will be eligible for their third dose by December 31.

You view a small vaccine vial with clear liquid and a red cap, standing on a white trestle table.You view a small vaccine vial with clear liquid and a red cap, standing on a white trestle table.
Anybody aged 18 and over who completed their vaccination five months ago is eligible for a booster.(ABC News: Ongerung Kambes Kesolei)

Booster shots aren't mandatory, but research shows they increase your protection against infection and severe disease,  says Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University.

This is important in the face of waning vaccine immunity, and also in light of the new, highly-mutated Omicron variant, which preliminary research suggests is very transmissible and better at evading immune protection.

"With Omicron, [vaccination] doesn't really give you protection against infection or symptomatic disease, but it still protects you from serious illness," Professor Bennett said.

"In NSW, in particular, we are now talking about an increased likelihood of cases being Omicron, rather than Delta."

A large South African study (which has not yet been peer reviewed) recently found two vaccine doses provided 70 per cent protection against severe disease with Omicron, but just 33 per cent protection against infection.

Preliminary data published last week by Australian researchers showed a booster vaccine has the potential to raise that protection to 86 per cent against symptomatic infection, and 98 per cent against severe disease.

(You can find out everything you need to know about when and where to get your booster shot here.)

Read more about the spread of COVID-19:Reduce the risks at social events

Unlike the northern hemisphere, Australia has the advantage of a festive season that coincides with summer (although La Niña means big chunks of the east coast can expect wetter-than-average conditions this year).

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If the weather permits, Dr Vally recommends planning your Christmas and end-of-year festivities outside, where the risk of COVID transmission is significantly lower.

"The best thing you can do, particularly if you're going to have a large gathering, is to do it outdoors," he said.

That's because most COVID transmission happens indoors, particularly in crowded and poorly ventilated spaces.

If you are indoors, consider opening up some windows and dining in your biggest room.

On top of thinking about ventilation, Dr Vally says minimising COVID-19 risk comes down to doing "all the same things that you usually do".

Family sits around a table outside, laughing and pulling bonbons.Family sits around a table outside, laughing and pulling bonbons.
A lot of people will spend their holidays with an older parent, grandparent or others at a higher risk.(Getty Images: Jessie Casson)

That includes good hand hygiene, coughing or sneezing into your elbow, and, when it's possible, social distancing.

"It may involve just being a bit discriminating against who you hug and kiss … just limiting that sort of intimacy where you can," he said.

And, of course, if you're feeling unwell or have any COVID-19 symptoms, it's best to stay at home and get tested.

What if you have at-risk family or friends?

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A big part of the decision about what level of precautions you might want to take will come down to the people you will socialise with.

RMIT University vaccine and immunology researcher Kylie Quinn said it was important to be aware of your own COVID-19 risk factors and those of the people around you.

"Do you have factors that might make you more at risk of severe disease?" Dr Quinn said.

"Are those factors within your friends and family groups? And are you in an area with high circulating virus?"

Research suggests adults over 65 and people who are immunocompromised are more at risk of serious disease from a breakthrough infection.

To reduce the risk of COVID-19 being passed on to someone who is more vulnerable, Dr Quinn suggests everyone attending the event take a rapid antigen test beforehand.

"It might be a good idea to seek out antigen tests prior to visits if you're concerned about someone's health," she said.

"It's a way for us to show our care and concern to those folks."

Rapid antigen tests are available in pharmacies and supermarkets and return results in about 20 to 30 minutes.

Professor Bennett said the screening tests were less accurate than PCR tests done at testing centres, but still "pretty reliable".

"What it does is, if someone is really infectious — they're in the early days of the infection and have got that really high viral load — they're probably more likely to come up positive on the rapid antigen test," she said.

"[The tests] are not perfect … but it's a guide. And if it's positive, you should not go."

A glitter gold star ornament hangs on the branch of a Christmas tree.A glitter gold star ornament hangs on the branch of a Christmas tree.
The best time to take a rapid test is on the day of the event.(Pexels: Valeria Boltneva)

Dr Vally added that if you planned to see vulnerable or elderly loved ones at Christmas time, it was worth also thinking about how many social events you attended in the days prior.

"If you're in that situation, you clearly want to be more cautious, than say, if you're going to just be around young [and otherwise healthy] people," he said.

"It could be an occasion where you decide, on balance, although it's a bit of a pain, I will also wear a mask when I'm around those vulnerable people — just as that extra level of protection."

When your loved ones aren't vaccinated

While the vast majority of Australians eligible for a COVID-19 jab have been vaccinated, many people will be navigating the holiday season with unvaccinated family and friends.

Health experts say although it's important to protect yourself and others — by taking into account vulnerable people and how much COVID is in the community — it's also worth remembering that vaccine risk isn't all or nothing.

Being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 reduces your risk of getting infected and of passing the virus on, but it doesn't eliminate the risk entirely.

"I think there's a balance here between social considerations and health considerations," Dr Vally said.

How to have tricky vaccine conversations
Young man and woman sitting around large blank thought bubble against white background.Young man and woman sitting around large blank thought bubble against white background.

Conversations about vaccination can be really hard, especially when you don't see eye to eye with someone you love.

Read more

If you have an unvaccinated person attending a family or social event, you might like to ask them to take a rapid test beforehand.

This is particularly important if there is someone attending who is more vulnerable (in which case, the experts agreed, it's a good idea to ask everyone to take a test).

"But I don't think you're going to achieve anything by confronting unvaccinated people and making them feel cornered," Dr Vally said.

"The politics of Christmas are tricky enough as it is."

At the end of the day, it's all about communication and respecting each other's boundaries, Dr Quinn said.

"Ultimately, it comes down to their choice, and your choice of how you want to socialise."

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