Q&A: A Doctor’s Guide to Celebrating Thanksgiving Safely

Person cutting a piece of pumpkin pie

The American Automobile Association predicts that this year about 48 million Americans will travel for Thanksgiving. That’s down about 7 million from last year, but still a significant number amid a pandemic that has sickened millions and killed hundreds of thousands, and reshaped societies and economies. And many more people will gather at or near home with family and – maybe – friends.

What should you do?

Dr. Jessica Simmons, director of medical services at the University of Virginia’s Student Health and Wellness, offers some tips for safer travel and gathering – if you choose to do so at all.

Q. Should people avoid holiday travel during this pandemic?

A. Understandably, holiday planning is a very personal decision and an emotional one. The safest decision would be to celebrate only with those you live with in your home, to decrease the chances of contracting or spreading COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and the Virginia Department of Health recently released good evidence-informed infographics regarding holiday travel, and we medical providers advise that you follow those recommendations.

Dr. Jessica Simmons standing while looking at a computer monitor

Recall that even if you have a negative test, that test does not guarantee you won’t have COVID-19 by the time you reach your destination. You could have been infected already, or been exposed during travel. According to an August article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, “Over the four days of infection before the typical time of symptom onset (day 5), the probability of a false-negative result in an infected person decreases from 100% on day 1 to 67% on day 4 to 20% on day 8.”

The takeaway: you could be infectious to others and not know it, even if you’ve recently been tested.

Q. If people choose to gather in homes for Thanksgiving, how can they reduce the risk of virus transmission?

A. In terms of COVID-19 protections over the holidays: wear a mask if inside, keep windows open, try to eat outside, physically distance, limit the number of guests, and be very clear about expectations prior to gathering.

A significant portion of recent COVID-19 transmissions has occurred through people eating together, so this is a particular area of concern. Remember the new CDC definition of a close contact – less than six feet from a person with COVID-19 for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. Therefore, what you do throughout the entire day matters. In addition, it is imperative that you or any other guest who is not feeling well stay home from any gathering.

While eating together is an activity people embrace, focusing on getting together outside and planning activities besides eating is a good idea. Take a walk, throw a football, and just relax outside. Hopefully, the weather will [be] balmy for Thanksgiving.

Q. Is going to a restaurant a reasonable alternative to gathering in a home?

A. No. Although I miss going out to dinner, research has shown that eating in restaurants is a higher-risk activity. If you are going out to eat, choose a place where you can sit outside and physically distance. You can support restaurants by purchasing takeout meals.

For more information, read the New York Times article from Nov. 10, “Limiting Indoor Capacity Can Reduce COVID Infections Significantly, New Study Shows.” This article discusses a study that showed, “Restaurants were by far the riskiest places, about four times riskier than gyms and coffee shops, followed by hotels.”

Q. As the COVID pandemic surges, flu season has begun. What can people do to minimize their risk of infection throughout the long winter season?

A. The most effective way to avoid the flu is to get a flu shot. Also, frequently wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. If you are unable to wash your hands, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. And, as with COVID-19, if you’re not feeling well, stay away from others, even those within your household.

And get a flu shot now, so you can decrease your chances of contracting at least one respiratory illness. UVA students can make an appointment online and obtain one during normal business hours at Student Health and Wellness; walk-in Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the Student Activities Building through Nov. 23, or go to a nearby pharmacy. We also strongly encourage UVA employees to get vaccinated.

Q. How do you and your family plan to celebrate the holidays?

A. My parents live about 20 minutes from us, so we are lucky. We are having Thanksgiving dinner on their driveway. We’ll sit in our chairs at least six feet apart, and we’ll have different tables for my parents and for my family. We’ll also have different dishes of food and serving utensils for the two groups, so we aren’t sharing. We’ll still have turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and lots of pie. And we’ll have each other and a unique memory during this pandemic holiday season.

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