One third of America ignored COVID-19 by gathering for Thanksgiving — and it's easy to see why
- Public health experts warned for months that Thanksgiving dinner would be the perfect place for the coronavirus to spread.
- They suggested people limit their feasts, just for this year, to single-household affairs.
- Still, more than a third of Americans surveyed by Insider said they would not be changing anything at all about how they ran Thanksgiving 2020, despite the looming virus threat.
- Many said they'd travel, and most said they'd mix households without wearing masks or opening up windows.
- By next year, vaccines will be widely available, making it very wise to hold off until Thanksgiving 2021 to do a big spread.
- Still, it's difficult to blame Americans for doing the holidays-as-usual this year, given the utter failure of the country's leaders to rally together and get the virus under control.
Every year, Thanksgiving provides a-near perfect recipe for infectious diseases to spread.
People gather indoors, en masse, to cook, eat, drink, laugh, shout, fight, hug, kiss, and exchange air for hours on end. Everyone is exposed to everyone else: the young, the old, family, neighbors, and friends.
This is an ideal environment for the novel coronavirus to run wild and kill people.
That is why, while empathetic to our innate desires to mingle, leading public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci said time and time again: Stay home on Thanksgiving if you can, gather outdoors if you must, and keep any interactions with other households brief, small, masked, and well-ventilated.
However, many Americans did not heed their advice.
An Insider poll of 1,110 people across the US found that roughly one third of those (37%) surveyed were not changing anything about how they ran Thanksgiving. 31% of those asked said the CDC's recommendation not to travel this year had no impact on their plans. Most (57%) said they were going to mix different households at their dinner tables without wearing masks, opening windows, or using fans.
Yes, a third of the country has undermined the collective good faith efforts of everyone else to stay isolated, and keep our medics, essential workers, elders, and other vulnerable individuals safe.
But it would be trite to see this third of the country as malicious people. Everyone is mentally and emotionally exhausted, from going months without "normal" family connections. And they are justifiably frustrated: so many of our leaders, both local and national, have not done near enough within their power yet to prevent this virus's rampant spread across the nation and to deploy solid, evidence-based policies with enough systemic heft to make a dent in the pandemic.
So, let's not direct our ire at our neighbors who did not do the right thing around the table this year.
But, don't let their indifference to the virus infect your home, either. You could truly save someone's life if you avoid big celebrations until 2021.
Thanksgiving would have prompted an uptick in coronavirus cases even if we were well-prepared. We were not.
Canadian Thanksgiving seeded more spread of the virus there in October.
In Wuhan, Thanksgiving-like gatherings of tens of thousands of families sharing potluck meals for Lunar New Year in January ignited the virus too.
But the fact that the US was completely in the red already when it came to new coronavirus infections means this Thanksgiving will likely go down as the deadliest holiday gathering the world has seen during this pandemic.
Americans are tired and confused
After more than nine months of conflicting messages, unclear guidance, and indecision about the virus, it's understandable that Americans are tired and confused.
The virus situation in the US is so impossible to contact trace that some health departments are essentially giving up. In many places it's still very difficult to get a test, and neither vaccines nor decent treatments to help quell the virus are here yet.
We've been asked — for many, many months on end — to voluntarily stay away from our relatives, cancel big weddings, parties, and holiday plans, in order to be good sports and save lives during the pandemic. But, at the same time, we've witnessed very conflicting and confusing policy decisions, which have done more to keep people comfortable as temperatures tumble, rather than focusing on what's safest, or economically best. Many bars and restaurants are still open, while schools are closed, making pandemic restrictions feel uselessly frustrating and scientifically pointless.
Add in a sprinkling of American exceptionalism, and it's easy to see why Thanksgiving was not universally cancelled.
"As a country we've been raised to believe that we do our own thing," former CDC outbreak investigator and Osmosis CMO Dr. Rishi Desai recently told Insider.
"If you're not in the ICU yourself, you don't see this as a big deal. What you notice is that it's affecting your life. You're bored, you're tired, you're lonely, and that's your experience. And so people act on their experience much more than they act on ration, reason, logic, data."
One doctor says he doesn't blame patients for doing Thanksgiving as normal this year, he blames our leaders
Dr. Eli Perencevich, an infectious disease specialist in Iowa City recently told Insider that many of his patients told him they were planning to do Thanksgiving as normal, with extended family, and without masks. And yet, many of them have heart disease and emphysema, health conditions that doctors like him know can make the virus life-threatening.
He worries that these Thanksgiving celebrations could be the patients' last; it is pretty likely the coronavirus will be present at family dinner tables, given the current spread of the virus throughout the US. It is reasonable to expect that some of these people will die after their Thanksgiving meals end.
—Salt Lake Health (@SaltLakeHealth) November 24, 2020
As Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC's COVID-19 incident manager, said on a call with reporters last week: "One of your family members, from coming together in this family gathering, actually could end up being hospitalized and severely ill and die."
But Dr. Perencevich didn't fault his patients for their big Thanksgiving plans.
The blame, he says, lies more with public officials, who haven't made it clear how to stay safe during the pandemic, or provided the good leadership, testing, and contact tracing required to squash the virus down across the US.
"It's just devastating that we're in this point where folks have gotten mixed messages, and a lot of people are getting sick because of it," Perencevich said.
He noted how politicians and local health authorities have too often let bars remain open when cases are exploding, and made it perfectly defensible for people to walk around indoors in public places without masks.
"It's going to get worse for the next weeks, no matter what we do, but we're not really turning the ship at all," he said. "So it looks like it's going to just keep getting worse."
Holding out for a big Thanksgiving in 2021 will be worth the wait
The truth is, holding off on big gatherings, for now, still has life-saving benefits.
By Thanksgiving 2021, it's likely every adult in the US will have already had access to very safe, effective coronavirus vaccines. Treatments for the virus may improve too, making any illnesses contracted then less deadly and debilitating than they are right now.
So if you're part of the 10% of people who said they would bundle up and eat outside this year, the 17% of people who said they would open windows and increase ventilation at the Thanksgiving table, the 38% who didn't mix it up with any other households Thursday, or the 19% who canceled turkey dinner plans, know that you've done a good thing for your country, and that your sacrifice won't last forever.
"2021 is going to be a much, much better year," Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's school of public health, told Insider.
"My best guess is sometime late summer to fall , you can spend time with somebody else and not feel that anxiety that we all feel right now. It's less than a year away."
About our polling: SurveyMonkey Audience polls from a national sample balanced by age and gender. Our polling data collected 1,110 respondents surveyed on November 21 and 22. All polls carried approximately a 3% margin of error.
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