How to keep your family and home safe from COVID, thieves, fires, and more during the holidays

Home for the Holidays

A home on Christmas (Getty)

(WFXR) — From travel troubles and coronavirus concerns to opportunistic thieves and potential food, fire, or pet hazards, WFXR News has a compiled a list of ways to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your home as the winter holiday season gets underway.

Will you be leaving home for the holidays?

If you plan on spending your Christmas, Kwanzaa, or New Year’s away from home, make sure to follow this advice from the Wythe County Sheriff’s Office to ward off potential burglars:

  • Make your home look “lived in.” For example, use timers to turn the lights on and off inside and outside the house.
  • Don’t post about the dates or the destination of your vacation on social media because that tells a possible burglar when you will be away from home.
  • Don’t let the mail pile up at your door. You can either have your deliveries stopped or have a friend or neighbor pick up your mail.
  • Collect any hidden keys from outside your home. After all, burglars know the common hiding places for keys, like under the door mat.
  • Invest in a good camera system to keep an eye on your home.

Are you planning on driving to your holiday destination?

With extra motorists on the road during the holidays, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) urges travelers to drive with caution.

Between Christmas Eve 2020 and New Year’s Day 2021, officials say there were 2,253 crashes in Virginia, which resulted in 1,005 injuries and 21 fatalities. 

“Being a responsible driver should be a priority every time you get behind the wheel, not just during the holidays,” said DMV Commissioner Richard D. Holcomb, the Governor’s Highway Safety Representative. “It is up to us to keep each other safe on the Commonwealth’s roads. Slow down, buckle up, pay attention and drive sober.”

Here are some safe driving reminders ahead of the holidays:

  • Prepare before you go. Make sure your car is safe for winter driving, so check the oil, put air in the tires, and pack an emergency kit.
  • Drive distraction-free. Among the many things that can distract you behind the wheel, cell phones are at the top of the list, so put it away before hit the road.
  • Buckle up: Make sure every person in the vehicle is property restrained. This includes having the appropriate car seats installed correctly for children.
  • Move over. Drivers are required to move over one lane when passing stopped vehicles with flashing amber, red, or blue lights
  • Slow down. Do not drive above the speed limit and keep a safe distance from other vehicles
  • Designate a sober driver. Do not get behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Instead, find an alternate form of transportation by calling a friend or family member, arranging for a cab or rideshare, using public transportation, etc.

Will you be traveling by plane for the holidays?

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expects Wednesday, Dec. 22 and Thursday, Dec. 23 will be the busiest pre-holiday dates for national and local travel, while Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022, and Monday, Jan. 3, 2022 are anticipated to be the busiest days for post-holiday travel.

To avoid unnecessary delays, the TSA urges passengers to be mindful of the current COVID-19 health and safety protocols, including a requirement for all travelers to wear masks at TSA checkpoints.

Also, before you bring a favorite food or fragile present to the airport for a Christmas or New Year’s celebration, it’s important to think about how you’re planning to transport it if you are flying to your holiday destination.

Most foods can be carried through a TSA checkpoint, but there are some items that will need to be transported in checked baggage.

Here’s some food for thought. If it’s a solid item, then it can go through a checkpoint. However, if you can spill it, spread it, spray it, pump it or pour it, and it’s larger than 3.4 ounces, then it should go in a checked bag.

Food items often need some additional security screening, so it’s a good idea to remove food items from a carry-on bag and place them in a bin for quicker screening at the checkpoint.

Travelers who are unsure if an item should be packed in a carry-on or checked bag can check the TSA homepage, which has a helpful “What can I bring?” feature. Type in the item and find out if you can carry it through a checkpoint or if it should be checked. Another option is for passengers to tweet to @AskTSA to ask how best to travel with a specific food item.

Lisa Farbstein, spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
  • Holiday foods that can be carried through a TSA checkpoint
    • Fruitcake
    • Cookies, cake, and pies
    • Chocolates
    • Candy canes
    • Fruit and nut baskets
    • Spices
    • Ham (frozen or cooked)
  • Holiday foods that should be carefully packed with your checked baggage
    • Egg Nog
    • Champagne, wine, and sparkling apple cider
    • Cranberry sauce, preserves, jams, and jellies — whether homemade or store-bought — are spreadable, so it’s best to check them
    • Maple syrup

The TSA also emphasizes the importance of food safety, so make sure to store the food properly while traveling to prevent foodborne illness. If you need to keep items cold during your trip, ice packs are allowed, but they need to be frozen solid and not melted when they go through security screening.

As for traveling with presents, the TSA recommends packing gifts in gift bags or gift boxes instead of wrapping them because if a gift triggers an alarm, security officers will need to open the present. Wrapped gifts that trigger an alarm will need to be unwrapped, but if the gift is in a bag or a box, the officers can simply look at the item to resolve the alarm.

The TSA says snow globes smaller than a tennis ball are okay in a carry-on bag, but larger globes should be packed in a checked bag. (Photo: Courtesy TSA)

The TSA says that snow globes, a popular holiday gift, should be packed in a checked bag if the globe of contains more than 3.4 ounces of liquid.

“As a rule of thumb, if the globe is smaller than a tennis ball, it is less than 3.4 ounces and so it is permitted to be carried through a checkpoint,” a TSA spokesperson said in a statement. “Just pack those larger snow globes in a checked bag.”

Are you going to cook any special holiday meals?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the most important ingredient in preparing meals for the holidays is actually food safety.

The FDA also shared a reminder about the risks of eating ready-to-cook foods — such as packaged cookie dough or frozen entrees — without following the directions.

Do you plan on gathering with friends or family to celebrate the holidays?

With countless Virginians expected to gather with loved ones over the holidays, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) encourages everyone to take steps to protect yourselves, your friends and family, and your community — especially if they are not vaccinated — from COVID-19 as the omicron variant spreads.

“We may be through with COVID-19, but COVID-19 is not through with us,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. M. Norman Oliver. “Unlike a year ago, however, we have tools to protect ourselves. The vaccines we have now are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalization, and death due to infection with the Omicron variant, especially among those who have received their booster dose. If you’re not vaccinated or have not gotten your booster dose, now is the time to do so.”

Surveillance data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that the omicron variant accounted for approximately 73 percent of all new confirmed infections in the U.S. last week.

In addition, according to the VDH, CDC data in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Region 3 — which includes Virginia — indicates omicron represents 75.8 percent of cases.

As of Thursday, Dec. 23, the VDH says 76.6 percent of Virginia’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine while 67.2 percent is fully-vaccinated.

Overall, more than 6.5 million Virginians have had at least one dose, while nearly 1.9 million have had the booster shot, according to Virginia health officials.

The VDH also reported 6,473 new coronavirus cases — which marks the largest single-day increase in cases since Jan. 18, as well as the fourth highest case spike of the entire pandemic — along with 132 new virus-related hospitalizations and 33 new virus-related deaths on Thursday.

Since breakthrough cases are possible, Virginia health officials say you should not only get vaccinated, but you should also extra precautions, such as wearing a mask in public indoor spaces.

The VDH and the CDC shared several important ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus, including the omicron variant:

Here is a list of holiday activity suggestions from the VDH based on the level of risk.

  • Low risk
    • Virtual parties with your friends and family
    • Celebrating at home alongside the people who live with you
  • Medium risk
    • Indoor gatherings with fully-vaccinated individuals from different households.
    • Outdoor gatherings with individuals from different households who may not all be vaccinated
  • High risk
    • Large, indoor gatherings with people from different households who are unvaccinated
    • Celebrating in indoor, poorly-ventilated spaces
    • Events where large groups of people stand close together while cheering, singing, or loudly celebrating.
    • Traveling to a gathering in another community for individuals who are unvaccinated

Do you have any flammable holiday decorations set up?

The Botetourt County Department of Fire and EMS and the Franklin County Department of Public Safety have some startling statistics and potentially life-saving tips involving holiday fires:

  • Smoking is the leading cause of fatal fires during the holidays.
    • Make sure to put out your cigarettes in large and deep ashtrays.
  • Alcohol is a factor in approximately one in five fatal fires during the holiday season, so drink responsibly.
  • Cooking is the leading cause of fires during the holidays.
    • Always stay in the kitchen while cooking.
  • More than one in three home decoration fires are started by candles.
    • Keep candles in a sturdy holder at least 12 inches away from anything that burns, as well as away from children and pets.
    • Blow out any burning candles before leaving the room or going to bed.
    • Consider using battery-operated, flameless candles.
  • More than two in five decoration fires happen because decorations are placed too close to a heat source.
    • Make sure your tree is at least three feet away from fireplaces, radiators, space heaters, and other heat sources.
    • Turn off all decorations when you exit the room or go to sleep.
  • Christmas trees can catch on fire easily.
    • Get a freshly-cut tree with needles that don’t fall off easily, or get a UL-Listed artificial tree that is flame resistant/retardant.
    • Keep the tree away from heat sources.
    • Do not overload your sockets. There should be no more than three light strands in a row.
    • If you have a live tree, make sure to water it regularly.
    • Pay attention to instructions for indoor vs. outdoor use when it comes to UL-Listed Christmas lights.
    • Dispose of your live tree within four weeks of putting it up, but make sure to recycle it rather than lighting it on fire.
  • Taking down outdoor decorations sooner helps them last longer. If there are any decorations that didn’t survive the season, go ahead and replace them during the post-Christmas sales.
  • Flames move faster than you, so take responsibility for your family’s fire safety.
    • Install smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in your home, making sure to test them every month.
    • Practice a home fire escape plan so everyone in your home — including any holiday guests — knows what to do when smoke or carbon monoxide alarms go off in an emergency.

Martinsville Fire and EMS also made a video to show the consequences of not following fire safety measures during the holidays:

Do you still need to do some holiday shopping?

Whether you’re doing some last-minute shopping ahead of Christmas or getting ready to hit the mall for some Boxing Day shopping after Christmas, the Wytheville Police Department urges you to take some precautions while you’re out shopping:

  • Lock your car doors.
  • Do not leave your valuables — such as a purse, wallet, cell phone, or tablet — in a place that is visible from the inside or outside of the car.
  • Place your bags, gifts, packages, etc. in your trunk or cover them up with a blanket.

According to police, leaving items in open view gives would-be thieves the perfect opportunity for a smash-and-grab, which would certainly put a damper on your holiday season.

Are you expecting any last-minute deliveries?

In the age of online shopping, there are plenty of possible targets for porch pirates during the holiday season.

“Porch pirates steal delivered packages from your doorsteps or porches and tend to strike during typical business hours when many people are away from home,” the Henry County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement earlier this month. “These thieves ride around looking for packages that have been delivered and left outside. In some cases, the thieves may follow delivery trucks and come back after the package has been delivered.”

However, the Botetourt County Sheriff’s Office and the Henry County Sheriff’s Office have a few pieces of advise to ward off those thieves.

These tips range from simple and inexpensive to more elaborate and costly, but all you need to do is evaluate your needs and level of comfort based on the cost of items you normally receive and how those items are delivered.

  • Have your packages delivered to a location where someone who is usually home, like a neighbor or relative, can receive them in-person. You could also have them deliver them to your workplace if your employer allows it.
  • Encourage your neighbors to watch for deliveries and agree to secure each other’s packages. 
  • Get to know your delivery driver so they can learn your delivery preferences, allowing them to hide your packages or place them somewhere less visible to thieves.
  • Track deliveries online or sign up to receive a text message or email notification when your package has been delivered.
  • Provide delivery instructions. If packages need to be left while you’re not home, try to have them left out of sight from the street.
  • Pick up key deliveries in-person. If you are getting a really valuable item delivered, you may want to call and hold that delivery for a personal pickup.
  • Use an Amazon Key. Amazon offers a free app that allows the company’s delivery drivers to safely place packages inside your garage, car, gate, or home.
  • Consider installing a video doorbell or other camera system, which not only allows you to monitor your home, but can also help law enforcement if an incident occurs. 
  • Request a signature confirmation of delivery.
  • Insure valuable items.
  • Report any suspicious activity. It’s essential to give as much information as possible that describes the potential suspects, their vehicles, and their direction of travel.

“If I could offer you a prevention tip today it would be to get to know your neighbors and your delivery drivers, network with neighbors,” said Botetourt County Sheriff Matt Ward.

Are you planning on having a pet around during the holidays?

Whether we’re talking about keeping pets away from potentially hazardous decorations and food, or bringing a new furry friend into your home or someone else’s home, there are plenty of animal-related risks to look out for during the holiday season.

Before letting your guests drop table scraps for the family pet during Christmas dinner, do you know what types of food your pets can eat safely? Check out this quiz.

What about those decked halls? WFXR News’ Kim Yonick wrote up an article on how to keep your furry friends safe around holiday decorations:

If you’re planning on getting or giving a pet as a gift during the holidays, a certified dog trainer for Preventative Vet has some important rules to keep in mind:

  • Even though the adoption fees are lowered for pets during the Empty the Shelters event, you still have to pay for food, trips to the vet, toys, grooming supplies, cleaning supplies, and more.
  • While you may have more free time to take care of a pet during the holidays, consider how much room you have in your schedule once the new year rolls around.
  • The first few months after adopting a pet are very important for establishing bonds, routines, and house rules, so if you have any travel plans coming up during or after the holidays, you might want to wait until afterward to bring the pet home.
  • Getting a holiday puppy that needs potty-training means you need to be willing to get up late at night or early in the morning to take the dog outside in the cold.
  • Having lots of family members or friends over for the holidays can be overwhelming for a pet who is still adjusting to their new environment, even creating lasting fears or socialization issues for some animals. Houseguests can also bring other hazards, like open doors, luggage to climb into, and the urge to feed table scraps to the pet.
  • Rules need to be established for children when it comes to proper handling, petting, and personal space of pets.

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