It’s not too late: 5 ways to dramatically lower your COVID Thanksgiving risk

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, millions of Americans are facing the same dilemma: Is it worth having Thanksgiving gatherings during the time of COVID?

Public health officials are banding together with a definitive answer: No, especially if it requires travel. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued extensive guidance to that effect. There are more than 12.3 million COVID cases in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins, and more than 257,000 deaths to date.

A pandemic which has lasted the better part of a year has, naturally, taken a toll on our collective mental health, so the impetus to gather with friends and loved ones is understandable this holiday season. But understandable isn’t the same thing as prudent. Here’s what experts say are the best ways to stay safe from COVID this Thanksgiving.

It’s not too late to change your plans

The stark reality is that it’s a bad idea to have a Thanksgiving gathering at all this year. With a microscopic pathogen, it’s easy to think you won’t be the one to get sick until you do.

Official CDC Thanksgiving guidance highly discourages traveling. But that’s just guidance, not an enforceable rule. And millions of Americans aren’t heeding the advice.

More than 3 million people passed through American airports over this past weekend alone, according to the Travel Security Administration (TSA). Millions more are expected to travel in the coming days. And that presents a domino of logistical problems.

For one thing, if just 1% of expected travelers this holiday season contract coronavirus, they may spread it to more than 500,000 other people over the course of the next two to three weeks given its infectiousness and incubation period.

That’s something to consider if you made plans in late summer when the virus was more under control but are getting cold feet now. It’s not too late to cancel and it might be the smartest move.

Don’t rely on testing

A pandemic is a series of lagging indicators which must all be considered to paint the full picture. We know that you can be an asymptomatic or barely-symptomatic COVID patient and still spread it to others.

So taking a COVID test before trekking to an indoor Thanksgiving feast, given it can take as long as two weeks to present symptoms after an initial infection, isn’t necessarily all that helpful because the earliest stages of infection come with the lowest “viral load” of coronavirus which may not be detected.

Then comes the next domino. Surging cases, as we’ve seen in the past month, lead to surging hospitalizations which limit hospital capacity. Surging hospitalizations lead to surging deaths. But those numbers take two to three weeks to fully manifest the pandemic’s overall impact.

The CDC’s guidance is clear: If you must have an indoor gathering for Thanksgiving, wear masks, wash your hands, distance as much as possible, and limit your party to people in your immediate household. Resist hugging, kissing, or shaking hands with other guests. And, most of all, avoid extended travel if at all possible.

Go outside

It’s unrealistic to think millions won’t still throw caution to the wind and travel for Thanksgiving given the numbers we’ve already seen. But if it’s absolutely unavoidable, public health officials have tiered advice on how to stay safe.

Again, avoiding crowded travel is a must, as well as the safety precautions experts have pushed since the first days of the pandemic such as wearing a mask and distancing. If you have to travel, the officials recommend driving rather than flying since it’s easier to avoid the masses.

Should a Thanksgiving gathering have guests outside of one’s own household, the CDC says you should strongly consider having outdoor, rather than indoor, gatherings and try to maintain mask-wearing and social distancing as much as possible. Indoor gatherings should likely be kept to fewer than 10 people total.

The overarching advice from frustrated health workers and experts dealing with this latest surge of cases is uniform: Use common sense and resist the urge to have anything approaching large indoor gatherings for the good of public health. And if the wine begins to flow and the masks start to slip off, try to limit the total duration of the gathering.

Cull the guest list

No matter how strong your desire to congregate, there are certain people who shouldn’t be traveling or gathering with people outside their households no matter the circumstance.

The highest-risk populations for COVID include the elderly, those with lung or heart problems such as hypertension, Americans with diabetes, and other underlying chronic conditions.

In the first months of the pandemic, thousands of people reported the devastating reality that they couldn’t visit their own sick, elderly loved ones at nursing homes or hospitals. Urging such high-risk people to stay home and safe this Thanksgiving is the most surefire way to prevent that reality from becoming even more entrenched.

Try to lower your own stress levels

As dire as the public health situation is, it’s still important to take care of our own mental health. Humans are social animals and crave camaraderie.

There are ways to balance those needs and the risks. Americans are likely sick of Zoom meetings at this point, but they can be a great way to mitigate the logistical problems of not being able to have large gatherings or certain high-risk family members over.

“Celebrating virtually or with members of your own household (who are consistently taking measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19) poses the lowest risk for spread,” writes the CDC.

Other methods of lowering your stress levels this Thanksgiving are more basic yet can be enormously effective. For instance: Get enough sleep. Stay active during the day. Check in with friends and family via text, calls, and emails to ward off loneliness. And try not to drown out sorrows with junk food and alcohol. At least, not too much.

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