You ask. We answer.
"Help me understand what a negative COVID-19 test means and doesn't mean. If my family and I all test negative before we get together, can't we just act like normal?"
"Normal" sounds like such a dreamy existence, doesn't it? Unfortunately there are lots of examples of how a test-based prevention strategy is limited in effectiveness (the White House outbreak, the Wisconsin summer retreat).
Testing as a sole strategy is difficult because it can take 2-14 days for someone who is exposed to SARS-CoV-2 to develop symptoms of COVID-19. It is recommended that individuals wait until ~4-5 days after being exposed to a case of COVID-19 to get tested, since before this point, the false negative rate is high.
There are many examples of folks getting tested a day or two before embarking on a trip or going to an event, only to have one of the attendees become positive during or just after the event, potentially infecting many people.
You should still get tested before you travel or attend gatherings. A positive test should change holiday plans; a negative test, however, only gives you information for that point in time and doesn’t mean you will remain negative after that test. Even if you (and others!) have a negative test, still wear a mask, stay physically distanced, avoid crowds and indoor crowded places, wash your hands frequently, monitor for symptoms and minimize contact with people at high risk of COVID-19 complications.
If you need to be indoors for extended time without masks such as attending a traditional holiday dinner, where there will be lots of time around a table with people from outside your home while eating and drinking, or if you're moving for winter break and will be living with a new set of roommates, the safest strategy is for all attendees/future roommates to quarantine for 14 days before, consider how to eliminate risk of exposure during travel, and get tested early enough to get test results before traveling.
You can also help reduce risk at your holiday gathering itself. Host outdoors if possible. If indoors, open the windows and doors if safe and feasible. Limit the number of people attending. Have extra, new masks (in case someone forgets) and hand sanitizer available. Arrange tables and chairs for separation. Limit people going in and out of the areas where food is being prepared or handled. Have one household approach the food serving area at a time to prevent congregating. Consider identifying one person to serve all food so that multiple people aren’t handling serving utensils. Have high risk individuals attend virtually.
We want things to be normal again, and also know that everything is different right now. If you decide not to attend a holiday celebration – that's perfectly understandable! Tell people clearly and firmly. Focus on your decision about what’s best for you. Avoid getting into the details about the reasons behind your decision. You don’t need to defend your position.
We realize that this holiday season will likely look different that in the past. There are lots of creative ideas for how to connect with people you love! Find a celebration strategy that feels safe and healthy for you and your loved ones.