It’s that time of year when people are making plans for the holidays, and much has changed since last November when health officials urged everyone to limit social activities as COVID-19 cases spread like wildfire.
So is it safe to gather at grandma’s again for your Thanksgiving feast?
California saw its worst outbreaks of the pandemic after Turkey Day in 2020. The vaccines that arrived too late to save last holiday season were supposed to give everyone something to celebrate this time around. But then came the super-contagious delta variant, breakthrough infections and another awful summer of COVID-19.
For now, public health officials and medical experts are holding off on “official” holiday guidance, anxiously eyeing case rates for signs that the virus’s current retreat might reverse like it did last fall. They say people should assess their own risk tolerance and follow health guidance to celebrate as safely as possible.
“I think the stage we’re at in the pandemic is that hunkering down forever is not a viable strategy,” said Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the medical department at UC San Francisco.
And there is one essential ingredient to make every Thanksgiving get-together safer, he said. “If you’re fully vaccinated, you already did most of what you need do to keep yourself safe.”
The California Department of Public Health had nothing to say about the upcoming holidays other than that everyone eligible should get vaccinated against COVID-19. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually offered holiday guidance on its website last weekend, indicating the safest way to celebrate remains virtually or outside, but then curiously removed the advice, saying it was an accidental post and would be updated later.
Last year, Bay Area health officials urged people to limit gatherings to no more than three households and no more than two hours and to celebrate outdoors.
“The safest gathering is one that is a small, stable group that meets outdoors for a short duration and uses face coverings, distance and other safety measures,” they advised in November. “Any activity outside of your household increases chances of exposure to the virus.”
Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody had Thanksgiving dinner with her mother in her backyard, seated 10 feet away wrapped in blankets. Cody hasn’t made her personal Thanksgiving plans this year yet, but echoing Wachter, doesn’t see the counties telling people how to celebrate.
“It’s kind of an individual choice about your risk tolerance,” Cody said. “We’re sort of moving away from mandates and telling people exactly what they have to do and how they have to do it. We’re almost two years into this, right … and just reminding you that you’ve got these five layers: vaccination, testing, masking, ventilation and distancing. You can kind of toggle them back and forth, depending on your risk tolerance and the situation.”
Airlines, whose business has been rocked by repeated waves of COVID-19 since early 2020, are already anticipating more robust holiday travel than a year ago. United Airlines announced Oct. 7 that holiday travel flight searches on the airline’s website and mobile app are up 16% compared to 2019, and the airline plans to offer more than 3,500 daily domestic flights in December, representing 91% of its domestic capacity compared to 2019.
“We’re seeing a lot of pent-up demand,” said Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president of network planning and scheduling, in a statement. “We know families and friends are eager to reunite this holiday season, which is why we’re thrilled to add new flights that will help them connect and celebrate together.”
How safe is flying? Despite occasional reports of sick people aboard aircraft spreading the virus to others, Wachter said they’re generally safe, though he advises a high-quality mask and keeping it on when others are eating.
“It’s hard to find an example in 2021 of someone who had a good mask and kept it on the entire flight and got infected from the flight itself,” Wachter said. “It doesn’t seem that air travel is a dominant mode of transmission, in part because everyone is masked for the bulk of the flight, and airlines have as good an indoor ventilation system as any place you go into. I’m now going on trips that six months or so ago I would have said no to, for work or pleasure.”
For the first of the upcoming popular celebrations – Halloween – state and local health officials have not recommended avoiding trick-or-treating or handing out candies to crowds of visiting school-aged ghosts and goblins. Wachter saw no need for concern, given that much of the activity is outdoors and the virus isn’t believed to spread from surfaces such as candy wrappers.
“We know the spread from touching things is almost unheard of,” Wachter said. “If you want to be super safe, put the candy aside for a couple hours before you open it. But I think most of us stopped cleaning our groceries and mail about a year ago.”
Wachter said he plans to celebrate the other holidays with local family, but saw little need for others to avoid traveling to celebrate with extended family. Despite the more contagious delta variant, he said, vaccines, COVID-19 tests, surgical or N95 face masks and other measures can minimize the threat.
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