‘Not normal times’: health experts on how they are spending Thanksgiving

In October, Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s foremost infectious disease expert, said in an interview that his children would not be coming home for Thanksgiving this year and encouraged other Americans to avoid large celebrations in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Public health officials have often warned that the holiday, one of the biggest travel occasions of the year, could act as a huge super-spreader event.

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines to recommend Americans avoid Thanksgiving travel. But there are signs that many will be ignoring that advice and traveling and gathering with their families.

The Guardian spoke with five public health experts on how they plan on spending the holiday this year.

Michael Osterholm, epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota; member of President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus taskforce

“My partner and I are going to celebrate it together, alone. We will do some virtual Thanksgiving Day exchanges with my two children, their spouses and my five grandchildren.

I’m going to be spending the day doing something I’ve never done before, [and that is] calling a long list of people who I have been so fortunate to have had in my life, and telling each one that I’m so very glad they were born.

Sometimes it’s not until you lose something that you realize how much it means. Many families this Thanksgiving are having that exact feeling because they’ve lost loved ones to Covid. [The rest of us] are also losing the wonderful experience of being close to people.

This is hard, but I look forward to next year and [take comfort] knowing that by doing what we’re doing, we will all hopefully be here next year.”

Saskia Popescu, epidemiologist with George Mason University and the University of Arizona

“My husband and I are bubbling with my parents, who live 90 miles away. We’re being vigilant about quarantining for 14 days and then we’re all going to get tested in advance. We had to decide to [celebrate] with one set of in-laws, instead of both, so that was an awkward conversation. But we’ll probably celebrate Christmas with my husband’s family.

This is a time of year where a lot of us would normally get together with friends. My sister-in-law and I have a tradition of getting pedicures and dinner together around the holidays. I’ll miss that this year.

I have a virtual happy hour every Friday with a bunch of my friends from my Johns Hopkins fellowship, and we’re planning on having a pre-holiday one, where everybody wears an ugly sweater. I’ve been trying to send friends gifts because there’s been so much video chatting, which is wonderful, but there’s also something nice about being able to open a piece of mail or a little gift.”

Dr Gregory Poland, vaccine expert and internal medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota

“I have two sons and a daughter, and [the older two] will not be coming home for Thanksgiving as they normally would. My youngest son and his wife live near us and will be coming over for Thanksgiving dinner, but we’ll do it in the garage separated by about 10 or 12 feet. When we’re not eating, we’ll all have masks on. When we do eat, we’ll turn on a fan and leave the garage door open. It can get chilly, but we’ll put a heater on.

We’ll have a brief get-together and then see our other kids on Zoom. We’re setting up a table for those in our family who are not here, just to remember that we are a family, even if we’re separated by space.

Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday and it was a difficult decision not to spend it [together]. I was trying to think of all kinds of ways to make it work – testing, distancing, they drive home – and we just realized, as we talked through, that it wouldn’t be safe. It’s not the right thing to do.

Instead, we will rejoice in the Thanksgivings that we have had and look forward to Thanksgiving 2021.”

Dr Thomas Chin-Chia Tsai, surgeon and health policy researcher at Brigham and Women’s hospital and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts

“With the high risk of Covid transmission and large degree of asymptomatic spread, we feel that it’s safest to keep it to our immediate family – my wife, my two-year-old and me – and we’ll Zoom with our family members. Fortunately, our friends and families felt the same way.

We do a fairly traditional Thanksgiving, watching football and cooking, and we’ll try to maintain the social and family connection, but it is going to be more abbreviated. We’re all on Zoom all the time for meetings and work, and it’s not the same as being together.

Since it’s just the three of us and we have a young toddler, we’re not going to cook. We’re going to get a lot of takeout from local restaurants. It’s less work for us, and we’re also helping support some of the smaller businesses that have been suffering.”

Deborah Burger, registered nurse and co-president of National Nurses United, based in Oakland, California

“I’ve got my smoked turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, all that kind of stuff. But it’ll just be me and my husband. We’re not doing any outside visitors; I think most nurses have limited their interactions with extended family because they don’t want to put them at risk.

I’m really fortunate that, at least in my family, everybody’s on board [for spending the holiday apart]. But I have co-workers whose family members wanted to go ahead with Thanksgiving dinners with 30 or 40 people. As it gets closer to Thanksgiving and the number of cases reported has risen, some people have started to cancel those plans, but I’m really concerned that not enough people are re-evaluating their plans based on current information.

You have to reset your expectations of what the holidays mean right now. It would be extremely selfish to try and go about having ‘normal’ Thanksgiving when these aren’t normal times. It’s better to have a few empty seats at the table this year, rather than empty seats for ever.”

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