HEALTH MATTERS Experts say awareness and planning keys to holiday safety

·6 min read

Dec. 2—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Although COVID-19 transmission rates remain elevated across Pennsylvania and other states, many families are hoping to get back to important holiday traditions.

But releasing that pent-up holiday energy could lead to injuries and medical conditions.

Local and national experts shared some tips on having a safe, enjoyable season.

Art Martynuska, Cambria County (Pa.) Emergency Management Agency director, recognizes the ongoing risk from COVID-19 but said he's focused on the more familiar holiday safety issues.

Traffic crashes, fires, falls, accidental injuries and medical events keep emergency responders and hospital emergency rooms busy through the holiday season, Martynuska said.

And many of these can be prevented.

"First and foremost, people have to have situational awareness," he said. "That's inclusive of a lot of hazards we face."

He said heightened awareness can help improve safety while driving, putting up holiday decorations and even cooking for large gatherings.

Awareness and planning may help protect revelers from the ongoing threat of COVID-19, Martynuska said.

"If you feel you need to mask up, you should do that," he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the best way to minimize the risk of the virus — including the new omicron variant — is to get vaccinated, if eligible.

Mask-wearing is still recommended for indoor public spaces — and crowded, poorly ventilated areas should just be avoided. Those attending large gatherings with multiple households should consider getting COVID-19 tests before the events, the CDC says.

Safety on the highway

Moving back into full holiday mode after a subdued observance last year may add to the risk of accidents, Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Craig Shuey said in a press release.

Holiday traffic volumes are expected to be up by almost 40% over last year.

"With traffic returning to heavier volumes and travelers happily focused on holiday visiting, it's critical to keep safety top of mind while driving to your destination," Shuey said. "In addition to these significantly higher traffic volumes, motorists are decidedly more distracted as they return to the roadway and will need to be more vigilant for traffic incidents."

Drivers should be on the lookout for roadway obstructions, including disabled vehicles and volume-related slowdowns, he said — and be alert for changing weather patterns.

Traveling by motor vehicle has the highest fatality rate of any major form of transportation during the holidays, based on deaths per passenger mile, the National Safety Council says on its website.

Last year, it is estimated 340 people died in car crashes over the Christmas holiday and another 163 people died on New Year's Day. About one-third of the fatal wrecks involved alcohol impairment, the council said.

The safety council's holiday driving tips include being sure the car is mechanically sound for winter, with an emergency kit inside.

Drivers should also get a good night's sleep to avoid drowsy driving, plan ahead and allow time for heavy traffic, wear seat belts and put the cell phones away while on the road.

If attending events with alcohol or drugs, designate a sober designated driver, experts say.

Care when decorating

When it comes to holiday decorating, Martynuska said heightened awareness can go a long way to preventing common hazards such as overloaded circuits and extension cords under rugs.

"In decorations, anything people use should have a UL (Underwriters Laboratories) sticker to be sure the product has been tested," Martynuska said. "If you have a live tree, make sure the tree is away from a heat source."

It's also a good time to double-check that smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are in good service, he said.

Don't leave safety and situational awareness at home when visiting relatives.

"When you are visiting family, just know what to do: How to get out of the house in an emergency and where to rendezvous," Martynuska said.

Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center's chairman of emergency medicine is also sharing the awareness message.

"Patients have an awareness of their own underlying medical conditions," Dr. Matthew Perry said.

Heart disease, diabetes and lung disease are just a few chronic illnesses that can be aggravated by holiday overindulgence, he said.

"Watch your diet through the holidays," Perry said "It is important being aware and being careful about food intake and alcohol intake. If you are on medications, you should remain on schedule and don't skip follow-up appointments with physicians."

Those with heart disease or other cardiopulmonary conditions will want to be aware of overdoing it, Perry said.

Shoveling snow after a summer and fall of inactivity, for example, has been a prime trigger for heart attacks.

"If you are shoveling snow make sure you don't overexert yourself," Martynuska said. "If you are capable of shoveling snow, however, it's always a plus to help clear out around fire hydrants."

Personal awareness can also help reduce holiday stress that often aggravates existing mental issues, said Angie Richard, clinical director at Croyle-Nielsen Therapeutic Associates in Richland Township.

"There are higher expectations during the holidays," Richard said. "We have a culture of making the holidays bigger and brighter and jollier.

"People see holidays where everything is perfect, where, actually, it never works that way. Recognize the need to set real boundaries and expectations."

Establishing a realistic limit on holiday spending can reduce financial stress when the bills come due next year, she said.

Limits on parties and events are also important.

"Set aside time just for you," Richard said. "Spending time just being yourself can be very rejuvenating."

Self-imposed boundaries are good for mental health when attending holiday gatherings, she continued. Some people limit themselves to two drinks through an evening and others switch to water at least an hour before their planned departure.

Richard suggests having a plan for each event.

You don't want to punish your body," she said. "It's the difference between going to the cookie table and living at the cookie table. Too much is just too much. All things in moderation."

Those who overindulge despite their plan should not body-shame themselves and just try to do better in the future, Richard said.

"Be kind to you," she said.

Almost two-thirds of people with mental illness say their conditions are worsened by the holiday blitz, a National Alliance on Mental Illness study showed. Those who feel overwhelmed should know that help is available from numerous sources, Richard said.

"If you recognize you need help in the holidays, don't hesitate to reach out," she said.

Richard, Martynuska and Perry all said that kindness and patience should serve as a theme throughout the holiday season.

"Be careful, be patient and look out for neighbors, friends and family because they may be alone," Perry said.

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