‘It’s scary’: Family members returning home bring higher COVID risk for Thanksgiving gatherings

At a time when Americans are pondering how to celebrate Thanksgiving safely amid the country’s worst surge in coronavirus cases, many families will be faced with yet another complicating factor: the return home of students.

Public health experts are discouraging nonessential travel and gatherings of multiple households for Thanksgiving, fearing those activities may further spread a virus that has sickened more than 11.5 million and killed in excess of 251,000 in the U.S. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended against traveling for Thanksgiving.

Colleges and universities have reported 252,000-plus cases since the pandemic began, according to a New York Times tracker. Returning students — whether they lived in dorms or off-campus housing in the fall term — “exponentially increase the risk (of infection),’’ especially if they take some form of mass transportation to get back home.

That’s the assessment of Dr. Teresa Bartlett, senior medical officer for the claims management firm Sedgwick, who advises companies about medical strategies and safety practices. Naturally, her work has been focused on the pandemic for the past several months.

Like other specialists in the field, Bartlett is concerned that holiday gatherings, combined with pandemic fatigue and the need to move indoors as the weather gets colder, will exacerbate what’s already a major national spike in COVID-19 cases.

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The U.S. recorded more than 1 million new infections in the first 10 days of November and has logged upwards of 100,000 daily cases since Nov. 3, after never before reaching six figures in a day. The current daily average for the month stands at 130,000, a surge that has strained health care systems in many parts of the country and prompted some states — including California, Washington and Michigan this week — to tighten COVID-related restrictions. More than 30 states have imposed mandatory mask requirements.

Decisions on whether to share a turkey and stuffing with friends and relatives are now fraught with peril.

“You need to really seriously consider the risk vs. reward,’’ Bartlett said. “And I recognize people are fatigued of it and they just want to see their family, but add a glass of wine with the Thanksgiving dinner and people’s judgment kind of goes out the window after that, and maybe they’ll hug or get closer to what they should. It’s scary, the potential of what could happen here.’’
Events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade are a traditional part of the holiday’s celebration, which this year will be unlike any other.

Events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade are a traditional part of the holiday’s celebration, which this year will be unlike any other. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)

That’s why Dr. Eric Cioe-Peña and his wife are eschewing get-togethers with their numerous relatives in the New York City area. Normally, they would split Thanksgiving and Christmas, sharing one of the holidays with his family members and the other one with hers.

Cioe-Peña, an emergency room physician and director of Global Health at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York, wants to model the behavior he’d like to see in his patients.

“We’re going to have to make sacrifices,’’ he said. “My wife and I decided this year’s going to be nuclear family and we’re not inviting anybody over.’’

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s foremost authority on infectious diseases, and Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, have already warned about the potential for a proliferation of infections from holiday parties, even if they’re small and only among relatives.

Memorial Day get-togethers were partly blamed for the dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases the U.S. experienced early in the summer. Events like an August wedding in Maine that led to more than 175 infections and a September Sweet 16 party in Long Island, New York, that was linked to 37 positive tests have highlighted the danger of relatively small social functions turning into super spreader events.

Health officials are increasingly pointing to small gatherings as sources of multiple infections, some of which have led to deaths.

“All along there have been issues about attending weddings, funerals, religious gatherings and other events that are part of our normal life,’’ said Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. “They bring people together and potentially become vectors for the virus. As many public health experts mention, the virus is attending these events and can be transmitted from person to person.’’