In a year full of changes, Thanksgiving will also be altered for 2020. Health experts are warning Americans to “modify” their plans this year, since large gatherings, travel and shared meals are all potentially hazardous experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thanksgiving was already circled on the calendar as a major concern — past holidays, such as Memorial Day and July 4th led to multiple COVID-19 spikes this year. That, along with the colder weather that forces people to congregate indoors where the virus can spread more easily coupled with the coming flu season, looked like a recipe for disaster. But Thanksgiving has only become more perilous as the U.S. continues to deal with the largest surge yet of COVID-19 cases.
“I'm afraid I am quite concerned about Thanksgiving because it's a wonderful, warm tradition of families and extended families gathering together for prolonged periods of time, very closely. And that's obviously the environment in which the COVID virus would like to spread,” Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, tells PEOPLE.
“Indeed, the characteristic that's driving cases upward now is that people are gathering together in groups, not wearing their masks and spending more time with each other. And that causes an acceleration of what we're seeing now, because at the moment we're having a very steep increase in cases in literally every state.”
This year, Schaffner says that Americans “have to modify what we’re doing.” That means spending Thanksgiving with just our immediate households, and without elderly grandparents and relatives with preexisting conditions who are at a high-risk of developing severe cases of COVID-19.
“We don't want to give the virus while we're giving thanks,” he says.
For those determined to have some sort of Thanksgiving gathering, Schaffner advises quarantining for two weeks ahead of time, skipping any hugs or kisses, spacing out the dinner table as much as possible and wearing masks when people aren’t eating or drinking. But even those modifications carry enormous risks.
Bringing the Thanksgiving table outdoors, where COVID-19 spreads less easily, is another option, but Schaffner emphasizes that people still need to take precautions.
“Dining outdoors helps, but it’s not a cure-all,” he says. “You should be doing all the social-distancing and the mask-wearing outdoors. Remember, in order to reduce your risk, there's no single magic thing you can do. You have to do a whole series of things quite consistently.”
Yet another risk is how people travel for Thanksgiving. Schaffner says that driving is “the safest route,” because people can control their environment.
“You're in the car. You can get drive-through food, you can run in and out of the restroom very quickly. You can wipe off the handle on the gas pump while you're putting fuel into the car. Whereas, if you traveled with a public conveyance — air, rail bus, whatever — you're subject to the behaviors of others,” he says. “Are they all wearing masks? Are they keeping social distancing? You're going to have to sit next to strangers. It's more risky.”
If it’s available in their area, people can also get tested for COVID-19 before they head to Thanksgiving celebrations, but “it can take some time to come back and only tells you what your circumstances are on that day,” Schaffner says. “Two days later, if you've been exposed, you could turn positive.”
All of these options are ways to reduce the risk, he says, but Americans need to think about who are likely to develop severe disease if they get infected with COVID-19.
“What I keep coming back to, and urge people to think about, is: Is this important enough for our family to get together?”
Instead, Schaffner says, it’s likely best to accept that this Thanksgiving is “the aberration” and look to 2021, especially with the uplifting news this week that we may soon have a viable vaccine for COVID-19.
“It is possible that next Thanksgiving could be a near normal Thanksgiving,” he says. “If we keep our eye on that target and work together, we’ll get there faster.”
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