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How to celebrate Thanksgiving safely during COVID-19

November 17, 2020
family virtual thanksgiving 250

Think again before you send out those Thanksgiving invites this year.

COVID-19 has so far put a damper on many of our national holidays including Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, and now Thanksgiving – one of the few days of the year when families are surrounded by so many loved ones and friends under one roof.

Health experts – from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, to Dr. Mark A. Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health (who trained in infectious diseases and was on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic in Boston) – are sounding the alarm about gathering together for Thanksgiving at a time when the country is seeing record-setting COVID-19 cases sweeping the nation.

The big message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for Thanksgiving is to avoid travel, large gatherings, and limiting your alcohol intake, which could cloud your judgement in protecting yourself and others from COVID-19.

Thanksgiving will look different, says Dr. Fauci

Just about everyone has heard the old saying: “Mother knows best.” Well, in the case of Thanksgiving this year, it is “Dr. Fauci knows best” and noted his holiday “is going to look very different this year.”

“I think given the fluid and dynamic nature of what’s going on right now in the spread and the uptick of infections, I think people should be very careful and prudent about social gathering, particularly when members of the family might be at a risk because of their age or their underlying condition. Namely, you may have to bite the bullet and sacrifice that social gathering unless you’re pretty certain that people that you are dealing with are not infected,” Dr. Fauci told Norah O’Donnell in an interview with “CBS Evening News.”

Fauci, 79, whose age puts him at high risk for contracting the virus, noted he would love to have his three children home for Thanksgiving. However, they live in three different states and would have to fly home and use public transportation.

“When you’re talking about relatives that are getting on a plane, being exposed in an airport, being exposed in a plane, then walk in the door and say ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ – that you have to be careful about,” he told O’Donnell.

Seven Steps To Safety

Dr. Keroack agrees with Dr. Fauci and notes that he is “mindful that the safest thing to do is to have no event or a virtual event.” He offers seven steps to consider “if you decide that the party must go on":

1. Make a plan how you are going to keep everyone safe.

2. You and those who will be attending the holiday feast should avoid as much contact with others as possible 1-2 weeks before the big day. Partying the Saturday before Thanksgiving can put the holiday gathering at risk. Consider asking everyone, including yourself, to get tested beforehand (within a few days of the event).

3. Consider the amount of virus where the event is being held (red/yellow/green) and also where your guests are coming from.

4. Think about the location. Outside is better than inside, but the colder weather has arrived and it’s not practical to eat outdoors now. When inside, big rooms should be chosen over smaller ones, and consider ventilating the room by cracking a window(s) open. It is well-known that improving ventilation significantly lowers the amount of time respiratory droplets stay airborne.

5. Think about the people who will be attending. How many? Fewer people is better. Are any at high risk such as those who are elderly, obese, and who have diabetes or high blood pressure? Remind people with symptoms that they should stay home (cough, fever, sniffles, etc.).

6. Think about the event itself. How long will it go (shorter is better)? Loud talking or singing can spread virus more effectively. Food service – don’t have a buffet, instead one server wearing gloves should plate the meals for everyone and fill any requests for seconds.

7. Looking back at #1 and your plan, how do you know you will stick to the plan? Think of the important role you play as the host and protector of your guests, similar to a “designated driver.”

College Students As Spreaders

Still another factor to consider – what about those college students coming home for the holiday?

“We know that many colleges and universities have been hot spots during the fall semester. It is entirely possible that your son or daughter may bring home the coronavirus, many unknowingly since younger people are more likely to be asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic,” said Dr. Armando Paez, chief, of Infectious Diseases at Baystate Medical Center.

“They should be tested upon arriving home and quarantine until receiving their test results, as hard as that may be on everyone,” he added.

A Look at the Risks

The CDC’s recommendations – in order of risk – to celebrate the holiday include:

Lower Risk:

  • A small dinner with people in your household
  • A virtual dinner with family and friends
  • Watching sports events and parades at home – even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is going virtual this year.

Moderate Risk Activities:

  • A small outdoor dinner with family and friends who live in your community
  • Small outdoor sports events with safety precaution in place.

Higher Risk Activities

  • Attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household
  • Using drugs or alcohol which can cloud your judgement and result in risky behaviors when it comes to protecting yourself and others from COVID-19.

And, retailers may not be happy with this assessment, but the CDC also recommends not going shopping in crowded stores just before, on, or after Thanksgiving, in other words – “Black Friday.”

Follow the Safety Guidelines

Whatever way people choose to celebrate Thanksgiving, Dr. Paez reminds everyone to follow some commonsense safety precautions that public health experts have been recommending since the start of the pandemic to keep you and others safe from COVID-19:

  • Wear a mask 
  • Social distance staying at least 6 feet apart from anyone not in your household
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol)
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Don’t go out when feeling sick and avoid contact with those who are sick.