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It’s not too late to cancel Thanksgiving

Here’s your risk of having a guest with covid-19 at your holiday gathering.
November 14, 2020
covid guest at thanksgiving
Ms Tech | Getty, Unsplash

What’s your plan for Thanksgiving? Americans caught between the dire reality of an out-of-control pandemic and a desire to celebrate the national holiday with family may be tempted to believe that maybe they can manage the risks.

I’ve been thinking through my own planned turkey day gathering, an outdoor event in a rural setting with perhaps 15 people, including several older people and a couple of teenagers whose social distancing has been unverifiable at best. To me, being outdoors mitigates most of the risk of coronavirus transmission, yet as the day approaches I am having second thoughts. I think I might cancel Thanksgiving.

So what’s the actual risk? A helpful dashboard from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Event Risk Planning Tool, shows estimated odds that a member of your holiday party will bring the covid-19 virus to dinner. That chance depends on where you live and how large the group is, and the model assumes all visitors are locals, but not already in your pod. What’s plain is no matter where you are in the US, the risk isn't zero.

I ran some numbers, as others have, and here’s what I found. For a party of 20 neighbors in Brunswick, Maine, near where my family lives, there’s a 5% chance someone will have the virus, based on that state’s background rate of infection. A gathering of just 10 people in the hot spot of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, meanwhile, brings a 67% chance. Dinner for 50 residents near New Orleans? A 28% chance. For a gathering of five in San Francisco, which has managed to suppress the pandemic fairly well, the odds are lower: about 2.5%.

These models assume people at your gathering aren’t already in the same household—eating with the people you see every day wouldn’t change your risk. Yet like it or not, Americans will be moving and mingling by the millions, and taking the virus with them. Kids are coming back from college, and other people are going forward with long-delayed visits to relatives.

The AAA, which every year makes a prediction of holiday travel, projects a drop of at least 10% from 2019, to about 50 million travelers, mostly making car trips. That’s a lot people, but it’s the biggest year-over-year decline since the recession of 2008. And AAA has put also an asterisk on its projection, saying travel could dip even more steeply with last-minute cancellations.

The travel group itself suggests “staying home” as the best way to protect against getting sick. (If you do travel by car, as most Thanksgiving travelers do, it says to “be sure to pack face masks, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, and a thermometer to help protect and monitor your health.”)

One problem for Thanksgiving decisions in the US is an absence of clear messaging from Washington, DC. Instead of pardoning a turkey on the White House lawn, maybe President Trump should give us some advice on getting together. But so far, he hasn’t mentioned it. According to MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes, “Right now, if we had [an] administration that cared one whit about protecting Americans, there would be national coordinated messaging all over the place about making Thanksgiving virtual this year (or outdoors where weather permits)!”

Local ordinances and rules also vary widely, and in many places were tightened this week. Maine still permits outdoor gatherings of up to 100 (and up to 50 indoors). In Maine, most out-of-state visitors are supposed to quarantine for two weeks on arrival, while in California, LA County has recommended that its citizens not travel out of state. If they do, they’re supposed to quarantine for 14 days on their return. Both Boston and New York City have introduced evening curfews on bars and restaurants. New Mexico yesterday introduced a tough, two-week stay at home order.

But in the end, it’s mostly up to you. “I think each family is going to have to make a risk assessment about the risk and benefit of what we all feel is such an important tradition,” said Anthony Fauci, the nation’s chief infectious disease doctor. He said he was planning dinner at home with his wife, and a visit with his three daughters over Zoom. “Make your own decision. What kind of risk are you willing to take?” he said.

I ran a poll online about my own Thanksgiving plan, and most people thought it was too risky. While there’s scant evidence of coronavirus transmission out of doors, some said being outside wasn’t a magic bullet, while others felt the group was too big.

To me, gathering in an open, outdoors space is the best way to hack the Thanksgiving conundrum. Even if one of your party has the virus, there are few examples of the virus being spread outdoors.

The jury is still out on whether cold weather, per se, makes the virus easier to transmit, although dry, heated indoor air may assist the spread—and enclosed spaces definitely do. It’s being inside with other people for an extended time—which is more likely in cold seasons—that’s the largest risk factor. So far, November has been unseasonably warm in much of the US, making outdoor gatherings easier to pull off.

If you do want to manage the risk, one way is to combine various precautions, using what the virologist Ian Mackay, at the University of Queensland in Australia, calls the “Swiss cheese” model of prevention. While no single precaution is perfect—each slice of cheese has holes—taken together, steps like wearing masks, hand-washing, and keeping rooms well ventilated will push down the risk.

Testing and quarantine is another strategy. It’s time to start this procedure for Thanksgiving if you haven’t already—avoiding contact with other people for several days gives you a chance to see if you get symptoms (which usually, but not always, develop within five days). Since many infected people have no symptoms, getting a test is also important. Tests can still be hard to come by, though.

Another fact to bear in mind is that the chances of someone having covid at your holiday event, as projected by the Georgia Tech app, are in constant flux. Given how fast and widely the virus is spreading, those risks are going to be substantially higher by Thanksgiving. Coronavirus cases are in the red zone throughout much of the country, with more than 160,000 infections counted yesterday. By Thanksgiving, two weeks from now, that figure could conceivably rise to above 250,000 cases per day.

With so many people infected, and smaller gatherings propelling the pandemic, it’s easy to see how Thanksgiving could turn into a nationwide superspreading event that just makes things worse. And that creates an extra negative you may not have thought of.

If a very large number of people get infected with the virus on the exact same day, it means that by about a week later, a very large number of people will start feeling ill or seeking medical help, all at the same time. Think of a holiday traffic jam—except one that’s delayed and happens in hospital ERs rather than on the highway. Already, some hospitals, are feeling the burden of an influx of covid patients. The more stressed hospitals are, the higher the chance a serious case ends in death.

Let’s be honest: a Zoom Thanksgiving isn’t the Thanksgiving anyone wants. Masks and Lysol and computer screens have no place in the famous Norman Rockwell painting Freedom from Want, the classic portrayal of a American family feast in a sunlit dining room, with smiling faces leaning in way, way, closer than six feet. In fact, though, this is exactly the Thanksgiving to avoid: a lot of loud talk, in a closed room, with several generations around the table, including the family elders.

So I might still do Thanksgiving. But what I am planning looks a lot more like depictions of the original event—a scene imagined in The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, by the genre painter Jennie Augusta Brownscombe. The painting, of course, carries the historical burden of a meeting of civilizations that didn’t end well for Native Americans, who ended up decimated by European diseases like smallpox.

But the scene does get a couple of things right. First of all, it’s all outdoors. Second, each group keeps to its own pod. The Pilgrims gather around a harvest table while the members of the Wampanoag tribe largely sit to one side in their own group.

In other words, they’re sharing, but not getting close enough to exchange respiratory droplets. Amen to that.

Further reading: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice on “Holiday Celebrations and Small Gatherings.”

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