facebook-pixel

Commentary: Four experts on staying safe this Thanksgiving

(Andrew B. Myers for The New York Times) As the coronavirus pandemic intensifies, is there any safe way to celebrate Thanksgiving? We asked four experts to tell us about their plans and the science that shaped them.

As the coronavirus pandemic intensifies, is there any safe way to celebrate Thanksgiving?

We asked four experts to tell us about their plans and the science that shaped them.

Linsey Marr

Dr. Marr is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who studies how viruses and bacteria spread through the air and is one of the 239 scientists who signed an open letter in early July pressing W.H.O. to consider the risk of airborne transmission more seriously.

WHAT ARE YOUR THANKSGIVING PLANS?

In a normal year, my spouse, my two children and I would have made travel plans months in advance to see extended family members. This year, we’re staying home to avoid the risks of travel and of transmitting COVID-19 to vulnerable family members. However, we will still roast a turkey, make cornbread stuffing and bake a pumpkin pie — and then eat too much of everything. But it may not be on Thanksgiving Day. Instead, we’ll aim for the warmest day that week and invite Grandma, who lives nearby, to share the meal outdoors under our newly purchased patio heaters.

WHAT SCIENCE OR DATA ABOUT THE PANDEMIC SHAPED YOUR DECISION ABOUT HOW TO GATHER?

Gathering outdoors takes advantage of the best ventilation out there — freely moving air in the great big sky — so that aerosols that come out of our mouths while we’re talking don’t have the chance to build up in the air, in case one of us happens to be infected. Family gatherings can easily become superspreading events, and the last thing we want to do is to give the disease to someone in a vulnerable category. There is overwhelming evidence that breathing in the coronavirus from the air is a major route of transmission of Covid-19. Thus, we need to avoid sharing each other’s air as much as possible. The easiest way to do this is to move activities outdoors, where the likelihood of transmission is much lower.The quintessential Thanksgiving experience — gathering with friends and family, eating and talking boisterously around a table in a cozy room for hours — is the perfect recipe for an outbreak. It goes against almost all science-based guidelines to reduce the risk of transmission: Maintain distance, wear a mask, avoid crowds, ensure good ventilation, talk quietly and minimize the duration of events.

WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE TO AMERICANS WHO ARE FEELING UNSURE ABOUT HOW TO CELEBRATE?

Keep your gatherings small to reduce the chance that an infected person will be present and reduce the opportunity for the virus to spread to a large number of people. Gather outdoors (like the pilgrims!) instead of indoors as much as possible. Maintain your distance and wear a mask when you’re not eating. Open the windows (yes, even with the heat running), and consider adding a portable air cleaner. Take a break every 30 minutes and go for a walk to burn off the meal, so that the room has a chance to air out and allow virus that might have accumulated in the air to be removed.

***

Marc Lipsitch

Dr. Lipsitch is a professor in the Departments of Epidemiology and Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where he also directs the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

WHAT ARE YOUR THANKSGIVING PLANS?

In contrast to the gathering of 16 or so relatives and friends from around the country that we have hosted in the past, we are having Thanksgiving as a foursome (nuclear family) this year. We are staying in touch by phone/videochat and the like and thinking about possible smaller visits at less crowded times, but still uncertain.

WHAT SCIENCE OR DATA ABOUT THE PANDEMIC SHAPED YOUR DECISION ABOUT HOW TO GATHER?

The point of our Thanksgiving gathering has normally been to get everyone together with grandparents, and this does not seem advisable this year, given the exposure at the gathering but also in the travel that would be required. While I am not an expert on the risks on airplanes (especially with current precautions), airports at holidays are crowded and poorly ventilated (or at least they seem to be when one is in them). It seems like a lot of risk to take at a time when we are all trying to be very cautious about avoiding exposure. With current trends, prevalence may be at least double at Thanksgiving what it was in late October, so the risk of exposure is growing.

WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE TO AMERICANS WHO ARE FEELING UNSURE ABOUT HOW TO CELEBRATE?

As case numbers grow almost everywhere in the country, large indoor gatherings of extended families are transmission risks. While one can imagine various approaches to testing that might reduce the risk, we have seen from the White House that a testing-only strategy is not effective in controlling spread, and most of us can’t afford that many tests in any case, nor would testing rule out infection during travel that could become contagious during the stay. For these reasons, I think this is a good year to stay home and with nuclear families. I suggested to a neighbor with a big, local family that they get together in the back yard with a few of them at a time, maybe roast a chicken and make stuffing, and have an early (before it gets so cold it’s impossible) and scaled-down thanksgiving — or more than one in smaller, outdoor groups. That is more feasible in Florida or California than Minnesota, of course. We really need to maintain human contact with people we like and love. Putting some of the considerable resources people put toward travel at the holidays toward helping seniors set up video chat if they don’t already have it, making time for more interactions by phone or video or outdoors (maybe buying a warm jacket to take walks with friends and family), and the like all makes sense. And we should remember that millions of people likely can’t afford travel now and in some cases even a good Thanksgiving dinner because they are out of work, so it’s important for those who have jobs and resources to support (socially and financially) those who haven’t been as fortunate.

***

Natalie Dean

Dr. Dean is an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida who specializes in infectious disease epidemiology. Her research is on methods for clinical trial and study design for evaluating vaccine efficacy, with a focus on emerging infectious diseases.

WHAT ARE YOUR THANKSGIVING PLANS?

This Thanksgiving, my husband, kids and I will make the five-and-a-half hour drive to Georgia to my mother-in-law’s house. She has driven to see us a few times during the pandemic, to help with our three-year-old son and soon to be one-year-old daughter. We decided to drive up because we want to see my husband’s 85-year-old grandma, who last saw the babies in January. On at least one sunny afternoon while in Georgia, we will drive to great-grandma’s house for a socially distanced outdoor playdate. Great-grandma will sit on the porch in her rocking chair while the kids play in the yard (my daughter just learned how to walk!).

WHAT SCIENCE OR DATA ABOUT THE PANDEMIC SHAPED YOUR DECISION ABOUT HOW TO GATHER?

Last week we held a Zoom call with my husband’s aunts and uncles to discuss our Thanksgiving dinner plans. We considered an outdoor event with everyone, but opted against it. Case numbers are rising too quickly, and we didn’t want to bring our separate bubbles together. Instead, we will have a Zoom gathering to make toasts and play the game Codenames. Unfortunately, we won’t see my family in Massachusetts at all this holiday season. We haven’t seen them since February, and we really miss them.

So many areas are Covid-19 hotspots, and statistically that means many more people who are actively (and unknowingly) infected. For many reasons – accelerating case counts, flying with young kids and not wanting to place anyone at risk – we will not make the trip.

WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE TO AMERICANS WHO ARE FEELING UNSURE ABOUT HOW TO CELEBRATE?

My advice to readers this Thanksgiving is to really limit the number of separate bubbles you bring together. But exactly because 2020 has been so challenging, we all need something to look forward to. With a little creativity, like a recipe exchange or custom family trivia, Thanksgiving can still be special and fun. If nothing else, it will be memorable!

***

Michael T. Osterholm

Dr. Osterholm is director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a member of President-Elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force.

WHAT ARE YOUR THANKSGIVING PLANS?

I plan to spend the day with my partner. Just the two of us celebrating all we have to be thankful for in our lives. We will do virtual celebrations with our kids and grandkids. Maybe even find a new magic trick to do virtually for them. And I will spend part of the day doing something I’ve never done before on Thanksgiving. I will call a number of people in my life to whom I owe so much. I will thank them for their love and kindness and remind them that I’m so very glad they were born.

WHAT SCIENCE OR DATA ABOUT THE PANDEMIC SHAPED YOUR DECISION ABOUT HOW TO GATHER?

To gather in person because of tradition or peer pressure ignores the real potential for someone — a person who is infected and yet, has no symptoms — in your special circle of family or friends to bring the virus to the table. It will be virtually impossible not to swap air with that infected person. Loved ones will become infected and as I can personally attest, some will get seriously ill and even die. Unless everyone at the Thanksgiving table has been isolated from all other people for the 14 days before Thanksgiving dinner, they pose a real and present risk of being infected.

WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE TO AMERICANS WHO ARE FEELING UNSURE ABOUT HOW TO CELEBRATE?

My best personal and professional advice is: Do not risk it. This best way to show love for our family and friends is to not be together around the table laughing and enjoying a wonderful meal. Find other ways to celebrate with family and friends. Do a virtual celebration. Say grace together from multiple locations in the world. Spend time taking a wonderful meal to family members or others and leave it off at their front door. Then have a wonderful conversation from 20 feet away; you outside and they in their doorway.

Comments:  (0)