(NEW YORK) -- The recent rise in COVID-19 cases has come at an important time for millions of American families, particularly ones who avoided gatherings during last winter's surge.
However, doctors and medical experts said this year's holiday celebrations don't necessarily need to be outright canceled if eligible family members are vaccinated and stick to protective protocols.
"I think it can be very different than last year," Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News contributor, said. "We didn't have vaccines, we didn't have pervasive testing. With these new tools, we can celebrate in a different way."
Brownstein and other health experts said vaccinations and booster shots are the best tools to ensure that families are safe. The health data has shown that fully vaccinated people are less susceptible to the severe symptoms of the virus, are less likely to be hospitalized and less likely to die from COVID.
The booster shots have also been shown to provide strong protection from severe symptoms.
"The vast majority of breakthrough cases will be mild or asymptomatic," he said.
Brownstein also emphasized social distancing before traveling to see families as it would reduce the risk of catching the virus from someone outside their household.
While there are long lines at testing sites and shortages of tests around the country, medical experts told ABC News that getting a test will give families peace of mind and prevent spread if they gather.
Dr. June McKoy, a professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, told ABC News that even fully vaccinated individuals should get a test and avoid gatherings if the test comes back positive.
McKoy emphasized that the virus is still dangerous for children under five, the elderly and those with immunocompromised systems.
"Families need to be open before they have visitors," she told ABC News. "They need to know if you are putting someone at risk."
McKoy recommended that indoor gatherings be kept to a small number, especially if it's difficult to ventilate the room. She also urged family members to wear masks inside if there is an unvaccinated child or very elderly to ensure they are protected.
Removing the masks during meals is OK, according to McKoy, who said she plans on wearing a mask when she visits her family this week.
Ultimately, McKoy said it will come down to a person's own sense of risk aversion and willingness to adhere to vaccinations and protective protocols.
She did note that holiday gatherings with family are important for one's mental health and said taking such steps to enjoy the company of family during the holidays would be worth the sacrifice.
"We've all been waiting for [the holidays] and this is the important one. We all have to make sure to make it safe," she said.
Anyone who needs help scheduling a free vaccine appointment can log onto vaccines.gov.