How to Handle COVID-19 Testing During the Holidays

santa testing

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Key Takeaways

  • Traveling and gathering with individuals from different households increases the risk of infection from COVID-19.
  • With the emergence of the Omicron variant, experts are urging diligence in taking COVID-19 prevention efforts, like mask-wearing and getting tested.
  • Rapid and PCR tests can help users identify infections before gatherings and keep exposures to a minimum.

The United States is entering its second winter holiday season during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 109 million people expected to travel more than 50 miles from home.

The conditions for dealing with COVID-19 are better this year compared with 2020, when no COVID-19 vaccinations had yet been authorized for use.

The Omicron variant is spreading rapidly throughout the country. Fortunately, early data indicates a booster shot of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is largely effective at protecting against the variant.

Still, 39% Americans are not yet fully vaccinated and just over 27% have received a booster shot. With high community transmission in nearly 80% of U.S. counties and the looming threat of the new, highly transmissible Omicron variant, experts are urging holiday travelers to be extra cautious.

“A year ago, we were really very vulnerable as a nation, because we had no direct control over the virus. Our control today is substantially better, even though it's not perfect,” said Robert Amler, MD, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes that it's best to delay travel until you're fully vaccinated. Additional measures, like getting tested for COVID-19 before and after gathering with people from other households, can help keep you and your loved ones safe.

Robert Amler, MD

Be fair with your friends and loved ones. Be civil, understanding that this, for some people, is a very sensitive issue and people will feel differently about these issues. Try to be tolerant, keep a respectful distance, and show the respect of wearing a mask when you're asked to do so.

— Robert Amler, MD

Creating a Smart Testing Plan

Erica Nicole Johnson, MD, chair of the Infectious Disease Board at the American Board of Internal Medicine, told Verywell that there are definitely safe ways to gather with friends and families for the holiday season.

"It just requires conversations with your friends and family and considerations around how you want to protect the most vulnerable people who might be in your group," Johnson said.

Being vaccinated and receiving a booster shot when eligible is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 infection.

But creating a testing plan can also help keep your loved ones safe. Though testing can’t prevent COVID-19 transmission, it can provide key information about infections so those who get sick can avoid passing it to others.

The CDC recommends that unvaccinated people get tested one to three days before travel and within three to five days after their return. If they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, they should test immediately and get tested again five to seven days later, even if the first test was negative.

Anyone who is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms should get tested right away regardless of vaccination status and travel plans.

“If you know you had an exposure, then you need to go get tested,” Amler said, adding that it's best to take a test three to five days after exposure. “It won’t turn positive the first minute you get exposed to someone with COVID—it’s going to take a few days.”

Timing a COVID-19 test can be tricky because there’s no way to know exactly when you may be infected or when it will show up on a test.

The safest plan, Amler said, would be to take several tests: take the first one three to five days before a gathering, a rapid test on the day of the event, and another a few days afterwards. While this amount of testing may not be necessary for those who are vaccinated or don’t plan to travel far, he added, it can offset some anxiety when gathering with large groups or people at risk of severe COVID-19.

It’s important to remember, however, testing can’t substitute for vaccination and other protective measures.

“You could get a test at the perfect moment, and then go outside and get exposed to somebody with COVID. And an hour before you got tested, you could have been exposed to somebody with COVID and it didn't show up yet,” Amler said. “Testing is not perfect—it’s just another piece of information and if it's negative, it's reassuring.”

But for those who plan to travel via airplane or public transportation may opt to take an additional rapid test closer to the time of the gathering. This is especially true for unvaccinated people, who carry an even higher risk of infection.

“Keep in mind that the antigen-based tests don't have the same ability to pick up early infection in the way that the PCR-based tests do, even though we get the results back more quickly,” Johnson said.

How Often Should You Get Tested?

Experts say the safest plan for this holiday would be to take the first COVID-19 test three to five days before your gathering, a rapid test on the day of the event, and another a few days afterwards. Keep in mind that rapid tests are't as accurate as PCR tests even though they can offer faster results.

Plan Early to Secure a Test

There are numerous ways to get tested for COVID-19. You can visit a doctor’s office or clinic to get an antigen or PCR test, purchase at-home testing kits at pharmacies, and mail-order rapid tests online.

Be aware that some pharmacies may experience shortages of rapid tests as demand increases around the holidays.

“I'm glad that there are different options available, because I think that different things are going to make sense for different people,” Johnson said.

Some clinics will take testing appointments for those who have plans to travel or gather. Other walk-in clinics offer quick PCR or antigen tests. Rapid at-home tests can be a useful option for people who aren’t sure if they’ll have access to a testing clinic.

Having a rapid at-home test on hand may make it easier to do a quick check before entering a new household or gathering with others. But they may also be less sensitive to early infection compared to PCR tests. Plus, administering your own test can leave more room for human error, potentially leading to a false result.

For information about where to find a testing site, research the local health department for your destination, or contact your primary care provider.

Johnson advised against stockpiling at-home test kits. For one, it limits the available supply of tests for others who may need them. Since testing technology is continuously improving, it’s best to buy the most up-to-date kits available, she added.

Other Considerations For Safe Travel and Gatherings

In addition to testing, you can wear a well-fitting face mask with a high quality filter, opt for outdoor gatherings or in well-ventilated spaces, and maintain social distance in public spaces.

President Joe Biden extended the mask requirement for people traveling on public transportation until January 18. You can check the number of COVID-19 cases at your destination here.

When planning a gathering, Amler and Johnson said it’s important to approach conversations about COVID-19 expectations with empathy and openness.

“Be fair with your friends and loved ones,” Amler said. “Be civil, understanding that this, for some people, is a very sensitive issue and people will feel differently about these issues. Try to be tolerant, keep a respectful distance, and show the respect of wearing a mask when you're asked to do so.”

Being honest and up-front about your safety concerns and doing your best to respect those of others is key to maintaining comfortable gatherings.

“There is no perfect answer, other than staying home, which is stressful and difficult and lonely,” Amler said. “We all have to make the best choices we can and hope for the best but not beat ourselves up about it. Just do the best you can.”

What This Means For You

The best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 is to get vaccinated and receive a booster shot when you become eligible. If you plan to travel or gather with members of other households, consider creating a testing plan. Check with your health providers or local health department for information on where to get rapid and PCR tests near you.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID Data Tracker.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID Data Tracker.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Domestic Travel During COVID-19.

By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow.