The World Health Organization is urging people to wear face masks and social distance this holiday season amid the novel coronavirus pandemic even if it feels “awkward” to do so.

In a statement released Wednesday, WHO Europe offered advice on how to navigate the holiday season as safely as possible while the virus continues to spread.

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“It may feel awkward to wear masks and practice physical distancing when around friends and family, but doing so contributes significantly to ensuring that everyone remains safe and healthy,” the statement read.

The WHO said vulnerable people and elderly friends and family members “may find it very difficult to ask loved ones to stay away physically, regardless of the anxieties or concerns they may have.”

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“Consider what others may be feeling and the difficult decisions they will be facing,” the statement said.

The WHO warned that indoor gatherings, even small ones, “can be especially risky because they bring together groups of people, young and old, from different households, who may not all be adhering to the same infection prevention measures.”

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Gatherings should be held outside where possible, and attendees should wear masks and maintain physical distancing, according to the WHO.

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“If held indoors, limiting group size and ensuring good ventilation to reduce exposure risk are key,” the statement read.

What has Health Canada said?

Health Canada has issued its own recommendations for the holidays, urging Canadians to follow the advice from their local public health authorities.

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“Check your personal risk level and the risk level of your immediate household,” the agency’s website said. “Consider whether the activities you’re planning to take part in are safe. If you’re planning on going out during the holidays or for a celebration, plan lower-risk activities.”

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The agency said all Canadians should “show kindness and respect to others by following public health measures.”

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For months, Health Canada has urged Canadians to practice physical distancing, limit their number of contacts, wear a face mask and practice good hand hygiene in order to stem the transmission of the virus.

“For everyone’s wellbeing, help limit the spread of COVID-19 during holidays and celebrations,” the agency said.

In a previous interview with Global News, Dr. Timothy Sly, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s School of Public Health said this will “not be a normal Christmas, by any stretch of the imagination,” adding that Canadians should embrace using video-chat software like Zoom or Skype to connect with their loved ones.

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“I think most of the joy of this time of year is getting together with other people maybe you haven’t seen for a while,” he said. “But we’re going to see them in a two-dimensional screen.”

And, while this will be a holiday season unlike any other, one thing will remain the same.

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, confirmed on Wednesday that Santa Claus is, in fact, an essential worker.

Parents, #Santa and I had a call to discuss his #ChristmasEve plan, and don’t worry – he’s cleared as an essential worker in Canada.

Santa also has a special message for all the kids out there. Watch it now: pic.twitter.com/3Wr2YOjmVs

— Dr. Theresa Tam (@CPHO_Canada) December 16, 2020

“We have declared him an essential worker, so that he is able to travel in Canada and make his deliveries as usual,” she said in a statement.

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“Santa told me how grateful he is that children are following public health practices and I agree.”

By the numbers

Canada reported 6,415 new cases of the novel coronavirus on Wednesday and 140 new deaths.

To date, the country has seen 481,235 infections and 13,799 fatalities related to COVID-19.

Globally, 73,992,814 have contracted the coronavirus, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.

The virus, first detected in China late last year, has claimed over 1.6 million lives globally.

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