Going home for the holidays? Don't, experts advise

Despite warnings that travelling to family gathering could jeopardize the gains Ottawa has made in curbing the spread of COVID-19, it appears many families are about to ignore that advice.

Ottawa school reporting 'high volume' of students planning to travel

Gathering with friends and family outside your household risks setting the city back in its efforts against the spread of COVID-19, public health experts say. (Shutterstock / Syda Productions)

Public health experts have some straightforward advice for people planning to travel over the holidays: don't.

The warning follows a poll by Abacus Data suggesting 33 per cent of Canadians plan to get together with friends or family outside their households, and 13 per cent are set to travel out of province to do it.

Ottawa has been bucking the provincial pandemic trend by keeping case numbers relatively low, but that will change if people gather over the coming holidays, said Earl Brown, professor emeritus of virology at the University of Ottawa.

"We're doing very well, but that's not by accident, that's by strength of our behaviour, the fact that people have been serious about being careful and using our tools: our masks and our distancing," Brown said.

For recent proof of how quickly things can go wrong when people gather to celebrate holidays, Brown suggests looking south to the United States, where case numbers surged after American Thanksgiving.

Virologist Earl Brown warns Ottawa's COVID-19 case number will rise after the holidays if people ignore public health advice. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

"We can be the U.S. if we just let our guard down and ignore this situation," he said. "Things are good because of our actions, [but] they can get bad quite quickly, and it can be hard to get straight again."

Yet at least one school in Ottawa is already seeing families planning to ignore that advice.

I think the goal for this holiday is to find ways to interact with our loved ones and our friends, but to do it in the least risky way possible.- Dr. Brent Moloughney, OPH

"We have a high volume of students who will be travelling and then going into isolation after the break and not be returning right away, or going into isolation next week to prepare for family coming," Megan Egerton, principal of Woodroffe Avenue Public School, wrote in an email to families.

At Tuesday's Ottawa-Carleton District School Board meeting, the board's director of education urged families to reconsider.

"We know how much families like to gather at this time of year," said Camille Williams-Taylor. "We say it takes a community and a commitment to stay the course and refrain from gathering with persons outside of the household."

In a survey conducted between Nov. 27 and Dec. 3, 2020, 13 per cent of Canadians said the plan to travel out of province by car, bus or train in the next two months, while 33 per cent report said they plan to get together with people outside their household. (Supplied by Abacus Data)

Isolating doesn't eliminate risk

Even with a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, Ottawa's associate medical officer of health reminded residents it's still important to observe public health advice.

"We're trying to minimize the amount of harm that happens to our city, while at the same time balancing that with people being able to still interact in as safe a manner as possible to get through this," said Dr. Brent Moloughney.

"I think the goal for this holiday is to find ways to interact with our loved ones and our friends, but to do it in the least risky way possible."

Moloughney said even if people isolate beforehand, it doesn't eliminate risk.

"We've got more people who then have been exposed, and that means a certain number of them are going to be getting sick or perhaps seriously sick," he said.

Moloughney suggests if people insist on gathering, they should consider doing it outdoors, at a safe distance and for as little time as possible.


About the Author

Kimberley Molina is a reporter with CBC Ottawa. She has also worked in several cities in Western Canada. She can be reached at or follow her on Twitter @KimberleyMolina.

With files from Joanne Chianello

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