Las Vegas Sun

January 19, 2022

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A house divided? Vegas families grapple with navigating vaccine statuses of relatives at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving gathering vaccines

Shutterstock photo illustration

As families prepare their Thanksgiving tables, one issue that may arise is different vaccine statuses among family members. One suggestion to ease any potential hard feelings: Attempting to understand the other family member’s point of view. Mutual empathy and connection can help mitigate resentment, even if it does not exactly resolve the issue.

As the holidays roll around each year, with them comes the possibility of a contentious family dinner. Who might be the first to give their opinion on politics, or trot out their favorite conspiracy theory, or broach a culture-wars issue like critical race theory?

Will dinner make it to dessert?

Now, a new issue may hinder Thanksgiving plans even before the turkey hits the oven: the vaccination statuses of family members.

Las Vegas residents are tackling this precarious matter as the family-centered holiday approaches.

Gladys Godoy — community engagement coordinator at Signs of Hope, a nonprofit that assists victims of sexual assault — said she planned to attend a small gathering this year mostly limited to family members in her household.

Godoy received the COVID-19 vaccine in January, she said, but most of her family members have not received the shot. She said she respected their choice as a personal one and would feel safe with the household COVID-19 bubble she and her immediate family have created.

Her sister, who will also be attending their Thanksgiving gathering, will be the only other person vaccinated.

Although Godoy was disappointed last year to not celebrate her favorite holiday with her extended family — COVID-19 vaccines had not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by last Thanksgiving — she said she would enjoy favored desserts like apple pie and ice cream with the small group. In 2020, she said, family members used Skype and FaceTime to connect on the holiday.

“It was sad because during that time, you want to be around your family, but you couldn’t be around your family,” she said. “We just had to find alternatives, and that can be tough when, (during) the holiday season, all you want to do is be around your family.”

Tradition in the Godoy home is to cook the meal together, coaching younger cousins on preparation of the various dishes.

“Our tradition is that basically we normally all have kind of our dish that we make together,” she said. “Eventually, everyone can make their own Thanksgiving dinner by themselves and learn how to make each meal,” she said.

Brittany Richey, an educator and tutor who lives in southwest Las Vegas, is not vaccinated, she says, because she does not trust the drug companies that make the vaccines.

Richey also said she wants to get pregnant and is hesitant about receiving a dose because she does not think there have been enough studies done on how vaccines affect pregnant women nor does she trust the drugmakers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, says there is growing evidence of the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy and says the benefits outweigh potential risks.

“People want to say, ‘You’re anti-science.’ I’m not anti-science,” she said. “I’m a teacher. I love science. … Considering the track records of those corporations, I don’t feel comfortable getting the vaccine.”

Typically, Richey hosts a Thanksgiving for her extended family and a “friendsgiving” for acquaintances. This year, she will invite a small group of family members while putting her friendsgiving on hold because she does not want people to think she is gathering irresponsibly by mixing many COVID-19 bubbles with people outside her family.

“This year and last year since COVID started, I haven’t done the friendsgiving because it was frowned upon to have large gatherings with people not in your family,” she said. “I do work for myself, and my name is out there, so I didn’t want people to think I was being irresponsible.”

This year, the CDC recommends protecting young children not eligible to be vaccinated by getting the shot; wearing masks in public indoor areas, unvaccinated or not; avoiding crowded and poorly ventilated settings; avoiding gatherings if feeling sick, experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, and getting tested if necessary.

Richey said her vaccination status was not a controversial point in her family. Neither are their vaccination statuses — a few of them received the shot.

“I try to always be compassionate, and I totally understand why they would get it,” she said.

The Southern Nevada Health District recommends receiving a vaccine before the holidays as the best way to protect against COVID-19 and the flu.

“This will be our second holiday season during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Fermin Leguen, district health officer for the SNHD, said in a statement. “What is different this year is that we have vaccines widely available throughout our community. We encourage Southern Nevadans to get tested before they travel or, better yet, get vaccinated. There is plenty of time to get vaccinated against COVID and flu before holiday travel.”

Donna Wilburn, a licensed family therapist and owner of Ohana Wellness Center, said that while a political debate over Thanksgiving may be uncomfortable, it did not pose the health and safety risk that COVID-19 did. This is where it gets complicated, she said.

“This is very personal, and because, yes, getting vaccinated has something to do with your very own body, it’s not so much anger that I’m seeing, but it’s a lot of guilt,” she said. “People who want to exclude unvaccinated people feel horrendous. … And then the people who are not wanting to get vaccinated, they are feeling guilty because they love their family.”

Wilburn said the tension of holiday gatherings could be eased by attempting to understand the other family member’s point of view. Mutual empathy and connection can help mitigate resentment, even if it does not exactly resolve the issue, she said.

“It’s OK if not everyone attends the gathering,” Wilburn said. “You can still have a great gathering no matter who’s attending or who’s not attending.”