The holidays are just around the corner — and also around and not letting up is COVID-19. The nation has seen more than 1 million new cases in the last 10 days, and hospitalizations hit an all-time high of 67,096 on Thursday.
Experts warn that in the coming winter months, outbreaks are likely to get worse, especially in areas of the country that haven’t been able to keep infections under control. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced on Thursday that the city is issuing a 30-day COVID-19 stay-at-home advisory to take effect Monday. The mayor also asked residents to “cancel traditional Thanksgiving plans” and to stay home as cases continue to rise in the city.
“Death is not going to take a holiday this season. We’re going to see an increasing number of severe illnesses and deaths over the next three to four weeks,” Dr. Tom Frieden, CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, told Yahoo News.
Frieden, who was director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2009 to 2017 during the H1N1, Ebola and Zika emergencies, says the growing number of infections across the U.S. is alarming, especially going into the holiday season, when more people often travel by air and gather indoors.
According to the CDC, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. However, because social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and travelers often sit within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, flying may increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.
Per John Hopkins University data, the United States hit its highest one-day infection total (above 153,000) on Thursday, as well as its highest seven-day average for new daily infections (more than 131,000) on record.
The “numbers are not set in stone,” Frieden told Yahoo News. He said it is possible to turn things around if people follow effective mitigation strategies, such as avoiding gatherings as much as possible and wearing masks and social distancing when around others not from the same household.
After eight months, many Americans are exhausted from following these measures to control the virus. Many are looking forward to celebrating the holidays with family. But health experts say we are at a crucial point in the pandemic, and sacrifices and adjustments will be necessary to control the spread and avoid more deaths. Families will have to weigh the risks and benefits of having gatherings. These events, experts say, have become an important contributor to the recent surge of COVID-19 cases.
In Canada, where the national Thanksgiving was celebrated this year on Oct. 12, some health officials have said that new COVID-19 surges after the holiday were likely tied to Thanksgiving celebrations and gatherings. Canada’s post-Thanksgiving surge could serve as a cautionary tale for us here in the U.S.
If you’re trying to decide whether you should get together with others outside your home, health experts say that decision should be based on factors such as the health risks of those in attendance, the level of precautions that guests have been taking, the amount and kind of travel required to get there and the size and location of the holiday gathering.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said his family, for example, had to make the difficult but necessary decision to celebrate from afar. “I would love to have it with my children, but my children are in three separate states throughout the country, and in order for them to get here, they would all have to go to an airport, get on a plane and travel with public transportation,” he told CBS News in an interview last month.
“They, themselves, because of their concern for me and my age, have decided they’re not going to come home for Thanksgiving, even though all three of them want very much to come home for Thanksgiving,” he added.
To help Americans prepare for these adjustments to their holiday plans amid the pandemic, the CDC released updated guidance this week for holiday celebrations. With Thanksgiving fast approaching, the new guidance ranks a number of popular Thanksgiving activities by their level of risk, emphasizing that the safest option is to celebrate virtually or only with people in your household.
Shopping online rather than in person and watching parades or sporting events from home are also activities that pose a lower risk for spread.
For those who do plan to spend Thanksgiving with people outside their household, the CDC recommends that these gatherings take place outdoors. If that’s not possible, Yahoo News medical contributor Dr. Kavita Patel says to then consider a location with “at least open windows to promote as good of an air-circulation environment as possible.”
Attendees who are not part of your household should be encouraged to keep 6 feet of distance, wear a well-fitted mask while not eating and wash their hands often.
When it comes to food and drinks, even though the CDC makes it clear that there is currently “no evidence to suggest that handling food or eating is associated with directly spreading COVID-19,” the agency notes that “it is important to follow food safety practices to reduce the risk of illness from common foodborne germs.”
Some of the recommendations for holiday meals include avoiding potluck-style gatherings, encouraging guests to bring their own food and utensils, and for hosts to wear a mask while preparing or serving food for those outside their household.
Patel says grab-and-go meals are also a great option, but if that’s not possible, it is recommended that one person wearing a mask should serve all the food to avoid multiple people handling the serving utensils.
If you want to feel more at ease, as well as lower your chances of contracting COVID-19, Patel recommends quarantining before the gathering. “If you are going to be inviting people who are traveling from another part of the country, or you are traveling to another part of the country, consider having your own quarantine of sorts, at least 14 days where you are staying at home and avoiding other people and places so that you can guarantee that you are infection-free.”
The updated CDC guidelines don’t mention a specific cap on attendees, but say that all attendees should have enough space to stay 6 feet apart. Keep in mind that every state may have gathering limits or other specific rules, so you should check what those are in your state and stick to them.
The CDC has stressed that travel increases people’s chances of getting and spreading COVID-19, but Patel says that if travel is in your plans you can decrease your risk of infection by taking as many precautions as possible. These include avoiding using public restrooms, avoiding touching handles without washing your hands and wearing protective masks that fit well.
Finally, Patel told Yahoo News that even though this week the nation received promising news on the vaccine front, people should not let their guards down.
Pfizer and BioNTech announced on Monday that early data from their COVID-19 vaccine trial showed their vaccine is strongly effective. But experts warned that we should be cautious about our excitement, as key information about the vaccine is not yet available and the phase III study is still in process.
Frieden also said people need to understand that the virus will be with us for a while, even after a vaccine is achieved. “A vaccine is not going to bring a fairytale ending to this pandemic,” he said.
“Make no mistake — some of these things are not going to be available to every American anytime soon. The best thing we can do today is to continue mitigation measures. That means wearing a mask, that means staying distant when possible and washing your hands,” said Patel.