Here's how the CDC director keeps her family healthy during holiday season — and how you can do the same

Dr. Mandy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is cognizant of the mistrust some people feel toward the CDC and other public health institutions following the COVID-19 pandemic. But as Thanksgiving approaches and millions gear up for holiday travel, Cohen tells Yahoo Life that she’s hoping to break through some of the suspicion Americans may have about the agency's advice by sharing how she’s keeping her own family safe this respiratory-virus season.

“I'm not just a CDC director. I'm also a doctor and a mom. And I want to tell you what I do for my own family,” Cohen says.

Cohen, who led the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services before taking over as head of the CDC this summer, says that she, her husband and their two young daughters — ages 9 and 11 — have received updated COVID and flu vaccines this season, and that her parents are also vaccinated.

“I wouldn't recommend something for the American people that I wouldn't recommend for my own family,” Cohen says. “I hope people can hear that and get to know me as a person to help cut through some of the information that they're hearing, and understand why I'm recommending it for my family and want them to be healthy as well.”

People stand in a security line at John F.  Kennedy Airport in New York City in 2022.
Holiday travel can stoke anxieties about illness. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

We asked Cohen some of our FAQs on staying healthy while traveling and gathering with loved ones this holiday season. Here are her recommendations.

How can I prepare in the days and weeks leading up to the holiday season?

Most Americans are a lot less cautious now than they were at the beginning of the pandemic, but Cohen says there are still some commonsense measures you can take.

  • Get vaccinated. “The best thing that folks can do ahead of Thanksgiving holiday is to get vaccinated,” Cohen says. “Everyone [ages 6 months and older] is recommended to get the updated COVID vaccine as well as the flu shot, and if you are over 60, there is also an RSV vaccine.” Even though the COVID public health emergency declaration has ended, you can still get a free vaccine; most insurance covers the vaccine, and the CDC runs a program in partnership with CVS, Walgreens and other pharmacies to distribute free shots for those not covered by insurance.

  • Stay home if you’re sick. If you’re sick, stay home; it’ll give you time to recover and prevent you from spreading it to others ahead of the holiday rush.

  • Get tested. It’s also helpful to understand what you have so that you can get treatment if necessary — which Cohen says could save your life. As of Sept. 25, every household in the U.S. can order four free rapid COVID tests to be mailed directly to its home, and Cohen suggests taking some tests with you during holiday travels. You can place your order here.

How can I keep from getting sick while traveling and gathering with loved ones?

There are layers of defenses we’ve learned from the pandemic that still work to keep people healthy and safe.

  • Wash your hands. It’s one of the simplest and most effective ways to keep yourself and others from getting sick. It’s especially important to wash your hands before, during and after preparing food, and before and after eating that Thanksgiving feast.

  • Improve ventilation. When you’re inside, increasing ventilation by opening windows and doors can reduce airborne contaminants like SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses. (Although doing that isn’t possible if you’re traveling in the skies, the air on airplanes may be better than you’d expect; on most commercial aircrafts, cabin air is half HEPA-filtered, half fresh air — and refreshed 20 to 30 times an hour.)

  • Wear a mask. Masks are effective in protecting against circulating viruses, especially if you’re in close quarters with a lot of people. If you’re using crowded public transit this holiday season, you may want to consider breaking out those COVID-era masks. The CDC also recommends wearing a mask around others for at least 10 days if you’ve tested positive for COVID, and for up to 10 days if you’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive.

But public mandates about masks, testing and vaccines are now a thing of the past, so for the 2023 holiday season Cohen says you should assess your own situation to decide what precautions might be necessary.

“Another thing you want to be thinking about is your own personal risk,” Cohen says. “Are you over 65? Do you have an underlying condition? Are you going to visit someone who's over 65? Are you gathering with someone who's getting cancer treatment? Those folks are at the highest risk of something bad happening, so in those cases you want to layer on as many of those tools as possible.”

If I’ve already been vaccinated or had COVID, do I really need to get the updated shot?

In the U.S., most deaths from COVID have been among people age 65 and older, leading many young, healthy Americans to wonder whether an updated shot is really necessary if they’ve already been vaccinated or recovered from the virus. Some public health officials have even gone against the CDC’s recommendation that everyone over 6 months old get the latest vaccine.

But Cohen said that while those at highest risk of severe illness — like older Americans, pregnant and immunocompromised people — should absolutely get vaccinated, there are several reasons why everyone over age 6 months should get the latest shot, too:

  • The virus keeps mutating. “What I want folks to understand is that this virus has changed, and so you want to have the most up-to-date protection for the changes to the virus,” Cohen says. “Just like the flu virus changes and we get an updated flu shot each year, this COVID virus is also changing and you want the updated version of the vaccine to match it.”

  • Protection wanes over time. “Protection that you've had — from either having COVID before or being vaccinated — decreases over time,” she adds. “So getting the updated COVID vaccine boosts you back up and allows you to be in the best place possible to protect yourself.”

  • There’s the risk of long COVID. “Particularly for folks who are adults, we have to think about long COVID,” Cohen says. “Long COVID is extended symptoms from having COVID, even if it's a mild illness, and no one wants to be sick for a long time. If you get vaccinated, you reduce your risk of having extended COVID symptoms.”

Apart from getting vaccinated, how else can I keep my kids and family healthy as cold and flu season ramps up?

While vaccination is a good proactive step, Cohen says there are things you can do daily to keep kids healthy.

“Making sure they're getting enough sleep every night; healthy diets, making sure they're getting enough vitamins into their growing bodies; and making sure that they're in safe environments. All of the things we want [to help] our kids to thrive, those are the things that keep them healthy,” Cohen says.

And if your child feels unwell, get in touch with your pediatrician.

“We know our kids' immune systems are getting exposed to germs every day, and our kiddos get sick,” Cohen says. “If your kid gets sick, call your pediatrician, because you do want to get tested to know is it flu, is it COVID, is it something else — because there can be treatment depending on what your child has come down with.”

What if I wanted the RSV vaccine and haven’t been able to get it? Do I need to alter my holiday plans?

This is the first season that a vaccine targeting respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is available for several high-risk groups: A shot has been approved for adults age 60 and older, and a vaccine given to pregnant women can safeguard newborns when given between weeks 32 and 36 of pregnancy. Monoclonal antibody products are also available to protect infants younger than 8 months old.

But just as many Americans struggled to get the COVID vaccine, maternal RSV vaccines and antibody products have been difficult to come by for some. The antibody drug in particular is being rationed as manufacturers try to keep up with demand.

“There are supply limitations, and I know that has been incredibly frustrating for parents and families,” Cohen says. “We have been working with the manufacturers to accelerate as many additional doses as possible, and that is happening. We're seeing thousands more doses each and every week. So I would encourage parents to check back with your pediatrician, because even if they don't have it this week, they may get it in a couple of weeks.”

In the meantime, if you want the maternal RSV vaccine or antibody drug and haven’t been able to get it, Cohen suggests exercising extra caution.

“I'd encourage [parents] to use the same practices we've always done, which is to stay home when you're sick, wash hands, stay away from others who may be sick and make sure that you're using tools to protect yourself — whether that's masks, ventilation or others.”

So far this season, vaccination rates have been pretty low. How will that affect the spread of COVID and flu this holiday season?

As of Oct. 14, just 7 percent of adults and 2 percent of children have received the latest COVID shot. Although we’re still at the beginning of the respiratory virus season, Cohen suggests that higher vaccination rates could help taper a spike in cases as we head deeper into the fall and winter months.

“We're seeing pretty low levels of COVID, flu and RSV, though things are starting to increase. We do expect to see more of the viruses circulating, so now is the best time to get vaccinated ahead of that. We've seen about 17 million Americans get the updated COVID vaccine. We want to see many more,” she says.

“How severe the season is really is in our hands. I think the more folks get vaccinated, the less severe this season can be," she says. "So we have the power to shape what the future brings.”