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Ask a health expert: How do I safely enjoy the holidays?

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    Meet the expert:  Carrie Dolan is an epidemiologist, an assistant professor in health sciences and member of William & Mary’s Public Health Advisory Board.  Courtesy photo
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As we head into the holidays, W&M News spoke with Carrie Dolan, an epidemiologist, an assistant professor in health sciences and member of William & Mary’s Public Health Advisory Board, about ways to enjoy the season safely. The most recent health guidelines and protocols are available at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. This story is part of W&M News' Faculty on Topic series – Ed.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. We know it’s a really crazy period in the semester with finals right now. We wanted to speak with you before the holidays to hear what advice you have for people as they head into Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season.

It’s great to talk. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. My main piece of advice is that you've got to find ways to interact with people that you love – and it’s important to do that safely. So, this isn’t a message of “don’t”; this is a message of “do,” but keep certain mitigation measures in place. 

What are those mitigation measures?

The big three are: Wear your mask, physically distance and wash your hands. We’ve learned from this past semester at William & Mary that you can be very innovative and creative to still keep those measures in place and have meaningful interactions. I'm encouraging people to think about the lessons learned here on campus that could be things that you can share with your friends and family back home, for how people can still see each other in a safe way.

I wanted to bring up the subject of students returning home, because it’s part of the national conversation. From what I’ve seen in the media, there is a lot of concern that people traveling will bring the virus home. What are your thoughts on that?

I realize that’s a big concern right now. I actually think it will be the exact opposite when it comes to William & Mary’s community. Our students and faculty and staff have been practicing how to safely interact with people for the whole semester. What they’re going to spread is a culture of safely coping with this pandemic, a culture that they’ve developed here at William & Mary and will be taking back to their home communities to teach others.

I’ll just give you an example, because this blew my mind. We’ve had over 400 different student organizations still active and working and doing things this entire fall. We’ve been successful in the way that we've done that. Students were able to do what they love, with people they care about, in a way that limited the spread of the virus. So, I'm encouraging people to take the lessons learned here and then bring them back home.

One of the tools in our collective toolbox this semester was a method you developed for having dialogue called “Know Your Number.” Can you briefly explain that?  

Right. It’s just one of many tools we’ve used in our community this semester, but essentially Know Your Number is a way to simplify the hard conversations about risk in this pandemic. Know Your Number is a five-point scale, where a one means you're more conservative with how you're interacting with people and a five is you're less conservative. You can use it as a tool to communicate, to explain to others where you fall on that scale and learn about where they’re at.

So, for example, someone who just hops on a plane with maybe only a mask would be a five. What kind of responsibility do they have to others then? Because, yes, they are comfortable as a five, but they’re also putting others at risk.

That’s true. The point of the scale is to be able to talk about that level of risk, without having to go into all the details behind why someone is taking that risk. I’ve found that we can't always control what other people are going to do, but we can control what we're going to do. And in order to decide what we’re going to do, we need information from others, we need to be able to communicate.

We have no idea why people decide to do what they do, which is why I like the number method, because it removes all the reasons out of it. I can say to someone, “Well, I am a three,” and then people know what that means, without me explaining all the details behind why and how I came up with that decision.

I’m glad you brought up communication, because I think that’s a really important mitigation measure that’s often overlooked.

Yes. Heading into the holidays, we need to be willing to have the harder conversations. You may need to be the one in your family to say, “Hey, I know we were planning on having Thanksgiving, but maybe we shouldn’t do it now, or move it outside. Let’s look at getting some tables and putting them in the yard.” You’re going to have to be willing to say to your relatives, “Hey, I know we made plans to see you, but I ended up going somewhere and there were more people than I expected, so maybe it’s not a good step for me to come see you right now.”

What other advice do you have for people as we head into colder temps, with more people spending more time indoors?

It’s so important to continue doing the things that we know work. Pandemic fatigue is real. I feel it. We all feel it, but it’s important that we still follow these mitigation approaches, even if it's not easy. Yes, there is an easier way to go about living your life, but that is not what has kept our case count so low on campus. Doing the hard thing has been what has kept us all safe. 

We are at an era now with this virus that our mitigation approaches are based on data, on science. We aren't speculating. We’re not projecting what could happen. We know what happens when we don’t follow safety measures. I think it’s important for people to take that into account.