How Infectious Disease Experts Are Spending Thanksgiving During COVID-19

Health pros share the holiday plans they think will be safer during the coronavirus pandemic.

With Thanksgiving just weeks away, COVID-19 cases are surging in many parts of the country.

The United States reported more than 100,000 new infections for the seventh day in a row on Tuesday. Michael Osterholm — an infectious disease expert and member of President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus task forcetold CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. surpasses 200,000 new cases a day within the next few weeks.

Pandemic fatigue, coupled with upcoming holiday travel and indoor gatherings, has infectious disease experts deeply concerned about the spread of the virus in the months ahead.

“While this pandemic has taken a toll on many — especially those who have practiced the necessary public health measures and done their part to curb transmission — it is more crucial than ever that we stay committed,” Erin Sorrell, an assistant research professor at Georgetown University’s department of microbiology and immunology, told HuffPost. “We have seen the largest daily case counts in the U.S. this week since the pandemic began. The U.S. has breached 10 million cases in nine months.”

“We are headed into a very challenging few months and need everyone to do their part to follow public health guidance from trusted public health officials,” she added.

Infectious disease experts are adjusting their holiday plans — like skipping air travel in favor of Zoom dinners — to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 
Infectious disease experts are adjusting their holiday plans — like skipping air travel in favor of Zoom dinners — to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued updated guidance for safer holiday celebrations, noting that small get-togethers “are an important contributor to the rise in COVID-19 cases.” Celebrating virtually or with only members of your household is your safest bet.

But if you’re going to gather with family or friends you don’t live with, the CDC suggests limiting the number of guests so people can remain at least 6 feet apart, asking attendees to avoid contact with others in the 14 days leading up to the event, wearing masks when not eating or drinking, gathering outdoors when possible (or in well-ventilated indoor spaces) and practicing proper hand hygiene, among other precautions.

It’s also essential to take into account other factors, like levels of community spread in the places attendees live, the potential for exposure during travel, and guests’ ages or underlying medical conditions that may put them at higher risk for severe illness. (Head to the CDC website for other considerations.)

We asked Sorrell and other infectious disease experts across the country how they’re amending their usual holiday plans in light of the pandemic. Here’s what they said they’re doing.

Limiting in-person celebrations to just the household.

“I will be making adjustments to my Thanksgiving plans. They typically include air travel to visit family that are out of state. We have opted not to travel for a number of reasons, including the risk to family members who are over the age of 65. Their health comes first. We are limiting our in-person celebrations to our immediate household this year and not introducing family members into activities that we don’t see on a regular basis. While it is not my ideal plan, I do believe it is the best option for the health of my family, my extended family and my friends.” — Sorrell

Hosting a Zoom Thanksgiving with an agreed-upon menu.

“Our family — including extended — has decided to host a virtual Thanksgiving. We decided on this set-up because it has the lowest risk and all of us will be able to get together. We plan to decide on a menu beforehand so it feels like we cooked ‘together.’ We have family across the globe: in Singapore, India, Europe, Dubai and throughout the U.S., which makes timing pretty tricky. We are planning to have a pumpkin carving festival for all interested the day prior and then we will have our Thanksgiving dinner — which may be lunch or breakfast for some.

In some ways, we are really looking forward to it because all of us have never been able to get together on Thanksgiving. Now we can, thanks to Zoom! In fact, we have entertained the idea of doing a virtual and an in-person Thanksgiving in the the post-pandemic era. We are planning a dry run this weekend with Diwali, the festival of lights, which many of our family members also celebrate.” — Neha Nanda, medical director of infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship for Keck Medicine of USC

“While it is not my ideal plan, I do believe it is the best option for the health of my family, my extended family and my friends.”

- Erin Sorrell, assistant research professor in Georgetown University’s department of microbiology and immunology

Skipping the bar and getting together with a few close friends in their pandemic bubble.

“I typically don’t do much for Thanksgiving. I’m usually with a small group of friends and will probably do the same this year, as I’ve already mixed with them. I often like to go to a bar that night but there’s no bar seating in Pennsylvania where I live so that will not be part of my plans.” — Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security

Forgoing cross-country travel for a virtual celebration at home.

“We are still not sure how we will celebrate Thanksgiving this year — and the holiday is only two weeks away! This is our favorite holiday and usually we travel from Seattle to the East Coast to see our family. This year, because of the pandemic, that seems unlikely. We are still taking stock and considering our options, but I anticipate we will celebrate at home in Seattle and see our people online — a very disheartening idea, frankly, but this will be safest. Plus, I could use the rest that avoiding transcontinental travel would entail.” — Paul S. Pottinger, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine

Cooking dishes that remind them of home.

“I have a large extended family in the New York area and love the joy of seeing loved ones — including my elderly mother — but decided against making that trip this year. It would have been a logistical feat to pull off: visiting elderly relatives and potentially putting them at risk, the potentially crowded airports with lots of noses and mouths together, and the shifting quarantine recommendations for visitors to New York from California. Even the Bay Area is considering a quarantine recommendation for visitors, so I could potentially be stuck both ways.

Instead, this year, I will be living the joys of seeing family by cooking the foods of my family and of my childhood instead: comfort foods like Asian-flavored stuffing, Caribbean hot sauce on everything, Trinidad macaroni pie and more. Thank God for Zoom at least. And the silver lining: We actually have a viable COVID-19 vaccine in sight, so next Thanksgiving, at least, will be in person.” — Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious diseases doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco

“We will celebrate at home in Seattle and see our people online — a very disheartening idea, frankly, but this will be safest.”

- Paul S. Pottinger, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine

If the weather holds up, maybe have an outdoor, pre-plated meal.

“Thanksgiving this year will be like no other. Instead of the usual coordination about who is bringing what, my family and I assessed who was at highest risk and whether we could safely gather together this year. Unfortunately, despite relatively regular testing for school and work, given the ages of my parents, my children’s return to school and sports teams, we decided that the risks outweigh the benefits of getting together. Additionally, my brother and his family live in California and are not even considering air travel at this point. My father, who lives in New York City, was very matter-of-fact about not seeing anyone this year. My mother, who lives a short drive away, was harder to convince that we would need to establish a new tradition this year.

The compromise is that we will divide up the cooking (my mother will make the turkey and I will do the sides) and meet outside to swap dishes on Thanksgiving Day so that we can all enjoy a traditional meal. If the weather holds out and we can enjoy a meal outside, my husband, children and I, and my mother and stepfather will set up the Thanksgiving table for outdoor eating inclusive of masks and social distancing and pre-plated meals. If we are unable to gather together, we will likely have a Zoom gathering and go around the virtual room to give our thanks.” — Amanda Castel, professor of epidemiology at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.