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Close, but not too close: Vaccines will make for a merrier 2021 holiday season — but a little air and space are also advised

A year after recommending everyone stay home for the holidays, officials still say gatherings should be kept small. And keep the buffet line moving. Guests shouldn’t be congregating closely together in the kitchen or other tight spaces. 

Tina Lamkey and her kids Owen and Nora greet Santa Claus at Keystone Park in River Forest in December of 2020. Officials say the 2021 holiday season can look more normal thanks to vaccines, but they still recommend practicing social distancing.
Tina Lamkey and her kids Owen and Nora greet Santa Claus at Keystone Park in River Forest in December of 2020. Officials say the 2021 holiday season can look more normal thanks to vaccines, but they still recommend practicing social distancing.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Families can spend their second COVID-19 holiday season closer together thanks to vaccines — but a little distance wouldn’t dampen the spirit, Illinois’ top doctor recommended Friday.

With almost two-thirds of eligible residents fully vaccinated — and with most statewide coronavirus metrics back down to three-month lows — the Illinois Department of Public Health issued an updated set of holiday celebration guidelines urging residents to keep their gatherings small to help stave off another surge.

“Last year, many people held off getting together with family and friends during the holiday season due to the pandemic,” Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement. “This year, we have a safe and effective vaccine to help protect against severe illness due to COVID-19 that will allow friends and families to more safely celebrate together.

“Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself, your friends and family, and your community, but there are other actions you can take to celebrate more safely.”

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike speaks at the Cook County’s Forest Park Community Vaccination Site in April.
Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike speaks at the Cook County’s Forest Park Community Vaccination Site in April.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

That starts with travel precautions, according to Ezike’s agency. Besides getting your shots — including a booster if you’re eligible — officials recommend beating the crowds at O’Hare by traveling during off-peak times.

Unvaccinated residents are advised to take a COVID-19 test one to three days before hitting the road, and again three to five days after returning, officials said.

Ezike also recommends driving a private vehicle, or masking up for public transit — which is still required for everyone under federal guidelines.

A year after recommending everyone stay home for the holidays, officials still say gatherings should be kept small, with seating arranged to allow for physical distance and windows kept open if possible to increase ventilation.

And keep the buffet line moving, Ezike said; people shouldn’t be congregating closely together in the kitchen or other tight spaces.

Nearly 1.7 million COVID-19 cases have been reported statewide throughout the pandemic. Experts have said most of those infections were transmitted in the household.

While Illinois appears to have gotten through the worst of the Delta variant surge, officials are concerned about the emergence of dangerous new mutations — and the possibility of another seasonal spike as cold weather sends more people indoors.

For now, with an average statewide case positivity rate of 1.8%, the virus is spreading at the slowest rate seen in Illinois since mid-July.

New COVID-19 cases by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

Graph not displaying properly? Click here.

The state reported 14,616 new cases over the past week, an average of about 2,088 per day that marked a 3% decrease from the previous week. Cases have shrunk by more than half since early September.

COVID-19 hospitalizations dipped by 2% compared to last week, with 1,256 beds occupied Thursday night. More than 2,300 viral patients were hospitalized at the height of the Delta surge, compared to more than 6,000 during the worst days of the pandemic last December.

Coronavirus deaths remained flat compared to the previous week, with another 183 lives lost. The state’s death toll is up to 25,771 since March of 2020.

As the state prepares to begin inoculating children aged 5 to 11 next week, about 81% of residents 12 or older have gotten at least one shot, and almost 64% are fully vaccinated.