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Anxious about unvaccinated guests at Thanksgiving? Here's some advice for those difficult discussions

Thanksgiving marks the first big holiday during the COVID-19 pandemic that Ontarians will have a choice to gather with extended family and friends in large numbers inside their homes. For some, that will mean difficult discussions with those who have chosen not to be vaccinated against the virus.

'I think it's fair to ask the question, 'Have you been vaccinated or not?' Ontario's top doctor says

Anxious about talking to unvaccinated family and friends about Thanksgiving plans? You are not alone. (wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

This Thanksgiving marks the first big holiday during the COVID-19 pandemic that loosened public health measures will allow Ontarians to gather with extended family and friends in large numbers inside their homes.

For some, that will mean having difficult discussions with those close to them who have chosen not to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, or taking extra precautions to ensure the safety of all guests.

You may be wondering how best to approach those tough conversations, or what kinds of steps you can take so that your guests are comfortable.

Abdullah Shihipar, a writer and public health researcher at Brown University who is originally from Toronto, said it is best to address the issue head on. 

"It can be easy to confuse it for a political disagreement, and people don't want to make Thanksgiving political. But it is very important to remember that it's not a political issue. It is a matter of infection control," Shihipar told CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

"Just one unvaccinated family member can put a bunch of people at risk at the gathering, especially if there are children or older people there."

Abdullah Shihipar, a Canadian writer and Public Health Researcher at Brown University, discusses the pros and cons of setting a vaccine mandate around the Thanksgiving dinner table. 5:46

He recommended speaking directly with guests about their vaccination status, either on the telephone or even in person in an outdoor setting. Texts and email, he said, "usually just make things worse.

"People shouldn't hesitate to set personal boundaries around what they feel is COVID-safe and what isn't COVID-safe. And if another person has a problem with that, well, we have the right to set our own personal limits and boundaries," Shahipar said.

Spike in cases linked to Thanksgiving 2020

Last year, public health officials in several Ontario regions attributed a late-October spike in COVID-19 cases to large gatherings held on Thanksgiving about two weeks earlier

At the time, provincial regulations stipulated that up to 10 people could gather indoors while 25 could gather outside. That said, after a series of muddled messages to the public, government and health officials finally urged families to gather only with the people living under the same roof.

Thanksgiving this year is different, and comes with the advantage of COVID-19 vaccines. More than 81 per cent of eligible Ontarians, those aged 12 and older, have had two shots. 

It's not all gravy, though. Roughly 3.72 million people in the province are unvaccinated, a figure that includes children 11 and under, who remain ineligible.

'Individual decisions by families'

That means those planning to have guests to their homes for the holiday should plan accordingly, said Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health.

"These are individual decisions by families and I am sure there will be active discussions in the planning phase," he said during a Sept. 29 news conference.

"I think it's fair to ask the question, 'Have you been vaccinated or not?" to anyone you may be gathering with come Thanksgiving, he added. "If there is mixing of immunized and non-immunized people, I think basic symptom screening and masking would be appropriate."

If everyone at a gathering has had two doses of vaccine, then attendees can skip the masking, Moore said.

'Outdoors always trumps indoors'

Remember, too, that "outdoors always trumps indoors" when it comes to limiting potential exposure to COVID-19, he said.

"If the weather is fair, it's always nicer — if it's a mixed population of vaccinated and non-vaccinated — to have the occasion outdoors where we know the fresh air is safer than going indoors to a confined space."

Of course, individuals will need to assess the overall risks given their personal circumstances.

"I get concerned when it's multi-generational, or whether there is anyone who is immune-suppressed or compromised attending," Moore continued.

Dr. Eileen de Villa, the City of Toronto's medical officer of health, recommended that we still exercise caution this Thanksgiving.

"What that means is keeping those gatherings relatively small, to use masks as much as possible, take advantage of outdoor spaces, and open windows and doors as much as possible — reducing the likelihood of any kind of transmission," she said.

With files from Metro Morning

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