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Avoid Thanksgiving Travel, CDC Urges in Updated Guidance

Recommendations include celebrating within your household, not hosting guests

Navigating the New Normal of Holiday Gatherings

En español | The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is strongly advising people to cancel Thanksgiving travel plans to avoid spreading or contracting the coronavirus this holiday.

With Thanksgiving just a week away, the CDC released updated guidance around holiday celebrations, urging people to limit gatherings and to wear face masks in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

More than 1 million new COVID-19 cases were reported in the United States in the past seven days, the CDC noted.

The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to gather at home and to restrict the guest list to your immediate household. “Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu,” the guidance notes.

Medical experts continue to advise people to stay home for the holiday. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said during a recent AARP tele-town hall on the holidays and vaccines, that he and his wife would celebrate Thanksgiving on their own for the first time in 27 years. “It just isn’t worth taking that risk this time,” he said.

During the same discussion, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he also is not gathering with his family for Thanksgiving. He and his wife “made a decision that we’re going to have a quiet dinner with ourselves, put the Zoom on and chat with our children while we’re eating dinner,” Fauci said.

Traveling, hosting guests indoors, and sharing food, utensils and plates all pose significant risks, the CDC warns.

“The major difference right now is that COVID cases are increasing in many states,” says Keri Althoff, associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. “What’s changing is the underlying risk for even small gatherings.”

Those celebrating Thanksgiving should monitor the evolving situation, be flexible and have backup plans for the holiday, in case people feel sick or are uncomfortable getting together, Althoff says.

The CDC had previously updated its guidance around mask wearing. Along with new data that shows that wearing a mask provides coronavirus protection for those around you, officials have now determined that masks provide protection for the wearer, too. Data released Nov. 10 reveals that multilayered cloth masks reduce wearers’ exposure to COVID-19.

“Studies demonstrate that cloth mask material can also reduce wearers’ exposure to infection droplets through filtration,” the CDC states.

Prioritize safe celebrations

Many people are rethinking the way they approach Thanksgiving. Jackie McAllister, 60, of Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, says she typically attends a large family dinner with 20 relatives, hosted by her sister. McAllister is waiting to hear whether her sister intends to modify holiday plans, but she's also considering a much smaller celebration at her own home.

"You would have a tough time being socially distant in somebody's house if there are 15 or so people there,” McAllister says. “I don't want to put myself at risk or other people at risk."

If you are considering traveling for Thanksgiving the CDC recommends you:

  • Determine whether cases are high or increasing in your destination. You can use the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker for this.
  • Research whether hospitals in your community or your destination are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. You can check state and local health departments for this information.
  • Find out whether your home area or destination have quarantine requirements or restrictions for travelers. Check state and local requirements before you travel.

But even small groups pose a risk, Althoff cautions. “The concern about transmission in small gatherings is very high right now,” she says. Consider celebrating virtually with family members this year or dropping off a meal to older relatives who aren't able to attend.

If you are celebrating with people outside of your household, the updated CDC guidance urges people to keep gatherings small and to do the following:

  • Wear a mask over your nose and mouth.
  • Stay 6 feet from those outside of your household.
  • Get a flu shot.
  • Wash your hands and use hand sanitizer frequently.

In addition, if you are attending or hosting a gathering, the CDC recommends the following:

  • Bring your own food and drink, utensils, plates and cups.
  • Avoid sharing food.
  • Have an outdoor meal if possible.
  • Open windows for ventilation if the gathering is indoors.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces

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Testing is not foolproof

Some people may opt to rely on testing to help provide reassurance that celebrations are virus-free, but that can be tricky, Althoff says. The best plan is to quarantine 14 days ahead of any Thanksgiving gathering, though that may not be feasible for many people, she says.

Although testing can provide some information, the timing is critical. Tests taken a few days before a celebration offer a snapshot of information but not the full picture, she says. Someone who tests negative on a Monday may have been exposed to COVID-19 on a Sunday, and the test would not pick up a growing infection. Further, someone who has a negative test would need to quarantine until a scheduled gathering in order to protect against other exposure.

"The point is that a negative test helps lower the risk [of transmission], but it doesn't make it zero risk,” Althoff says. “It's all about the details and the timing."

Also, for those who don't have COVID-19 symptoms, it may be difficult to get tested in some parts of the country. So if testing is part of your holiday preparation plan, you may need to do some research to find a test site and schedule an appointment.

Althoff worries that if people gather for Thanksgiving despite CDC recommendations, the already stressed and overwhelmed medical systems and staff may see an increase in cases in the days and weeks after the holiday. “That's the part that is very frightening,” she says. “The situation right now is very dynamic and moving in the wrong direction."

Editor's note: This article was originally published on November 11, 2020, and has been updated to reflect new guidance from the CDC.

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