Students converting lessons learned at the university into service that benefits their communities represents the core of Virginia Tech’s mission.

Converting those lessons is also a key to maximizing safety and well-being while enjoying the holidays during the global pandemic. Although COVID-19 rates are currently low at Virginia Tech, they may be much higher in many places around the country where the students will be headed.

“Our students have been successfully doing the things critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19 for months,” said Laura Hungerford, head of the Virginia Tech Public Health Program, housed in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. “As they move home, they can apply that knowledge, while also carefully weighing the potential consequences that catching the virus could have for their more at-risk friends and family members.”

Hungerford said most Virginia Tech students will probably have more experience with safe in-person activities than their families and friends. This is an opportunity for students to share their insight and take a leadership role in keeping those they celebrate with safe.

“Our students know so much at this point and have witnessed so many examples of safe ways to gather, they can really help guide other people to interact in ways that greatly decrease the risk of transmitting or spreading the virus,” she said. “These might not always be easy conversations, but the “Give THANKS, not COVID-19” campaign from Hokie Wellness gives great suggestions for talking about being safe.

For ideas on the risk of specific holiday-related activities, check out this list from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Of course, safely arriving at those holiday destinations, whether they be at home or elsewhere, may take some extra study time this year.

“In a lot of ways, it’s just like any other trip – it’s all about planning and preparation,” said Nancy McGehee, department dead of the Howard Feiertag Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management in the Pamplin College of Business. “This year, it’s just going to take a little more effort.”

McGehee said it’s critical to take time before you leave to investigate COVID-19-related regulations along the route you are taking as well as at your destination, because they can vary by location. Mapping out a trip can also help identify safe places to refuel and take travel breaks.

She recommended reviewing the CDC’s guidelines for travel and other localities’ contact-tracing apps, such as COVIDWise in Virginia.

Like Hungerford, McGehee stressed that an important part of this year’s holiday prep is thinking about the other people planning to be at those destinations. Both experts advised students take part in a preventative 14-day self-quarantine – restricting movement to spaces in which strict adherence to public health guidelines can occur – as well as the university-encouraged testing before leaving Blacksburg.

Here are a few other guidelines Hungerford and McGehee provided:

Talk early and in-depth with others

Understanding each family member and friend’s comfort with different levels of risk can help set clear expectations and help avoid awkward conversations at the front door. Hokie Wellness’ Give THANKS campaign provides guidance for such conversations.

Some topics to consider:

  • What precautions are family and friends regularly taking?
  • Should people quarantine prior to gathering?
  • Will masks be expected?
  • Is physical contact, such as hugs and handshakes, allowed?

“Don’t get together around the table with a large group of people who haven’t been taking precautions,” Hungerford said. “That can infect your entire family.  Maybe, for this year, still emphasize the gathering - but outside and away from eating where you have to be unmasked.”

Plan for travel with limited contact

Testing can ensure you leave Blacksburg without the virus, but you’ll still need to take precautions not to catch it along the way.

  • Read up on travel restrictions for your destination and your journey.
  • Avoid peak travel times. Nights and weekdays are generally best.

“The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the single biggest travel day of the year. If you can, avoid those kinds of busy times,” McGehee said.

  • Pack travel snacks and lots of water.
  • Research contactless online ordering options at restaurants along your route.
  • Take advantage of contactless check-ins at airports and hotels. Where available, use your phone as your room key.
  • If flying, research the safety protocols different airlines are following and pack sanitizing wipes and the allowable size hand sanitizer.

“The actual flying is the safest part,” McGehee said. “There are up to 70 contact points between your car and the plane. Minimize touching surfaces and take advantage of the great technology that’s out there helping you to keep your trip as contactless as possible.”

Let risk guide how you gather

Smaller is safer than larger, outdoors safer than in, and short visits less risky than long ones.

  • Consider multiple smaller and shorter gatherings, rather than large, all-day events.
  • Embrace the outdoors instead of hunkering down indoors. Sitting around the firepit is safer than sitting around the fireplace and an outdoor religious service is safer than one inside.
  • Going virtual and taking advantage of contactless delivery of traditional food and treats are great alternatives for more at-risk individuals.

Limit the alcohol

Be aware that drinking lowers inhibitions and increases the likelihood of risky behavior.

  • Consider a dry holiday or a drink limit.
  • Limit drinking to outdoors to avoid close contact.

Enjoy the food, be mindful of the utensils

It’s generally accepted that COVID-19 isn’t transmittable from food, but it is very transmittable through saliva. Skipping the traditional meal is of course the best safeguard against possible transmission, but if you choose to dine together, here are some items to consider:

  • Wash utensils often, as it is similar to washing your hands in its ability to kill the virus.
  • Have one person plate all the food, restaurant-style, rather than buffet-style.
  • Consider having individuals bring their own pre-packaged meals.
  • Don’t share utensils, plates, or cups. Consider using disposable items.

“In general, the shorter the amount of time you’re around a person, the less your risk for spreading COVID.  But if you kiss someone on the mouth, for example, that all goes out the window,” Hungerford said. “The same is true if you share a drink or eat off the same fork as someone else.”

Be a leader

Hokies serve others often by using the wisdom gained from their experiences to help find solutions. The Virginia Tech community has done a tremendous job of finding creative ways to safely gather and enjoy one another this semester. Now it’s time to take those experiences on the road.

“Maybe it’s organizing a drive-in religious service in a small town or initiating a family hike,” Hungerford said. “There are a lot of things we can do that will really have a positive impact in home communities.”

Written by Travis Williams