How to safely celebrate Thanksgiving during COVID-19

The Thanksgiving table at Dr. Anthony Fauci’s home is going to feel a lot emptier this year, with his three adult children skipping the trip to Washington D.C. for the holiday.

For UCSF’s Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, it will be a Zoom holiday, with extended family dining together while apart. Dr. George Rutherford, also of UCSF, is inviting the kids to make brief “cameo appearances” — and plans to order food online for delivery, dodging germs in the cranberry aisle.

Welcome to The Great Thanksgiving Opt-Out.

Enlisting strategies unimaginable to the Pilgrims, the nation’s public health experts are reinventing the quintessential American holiday.

“What we don’t want is five generations of people at some big table, with everybody bumping elbows and passing food to each other,” said Rutherford, a UCSF epidemiologist. “If somebody’s sick, they could spread it around to Grandma and Grandpa and whoever else is there.”

Here are five things to know about the holiday:

People are forgoing travel

Flight searches for the week of Thanksgiving are down nearly 60%, according to Kayak, an online travel search company. Flight prices have also fallen 21%, it reports. FlightAware, which tracks air traffic, says the skies are only half full, with 52,000 daily flights, down from 101,000 daily flights last year.

And hotel prices are up 5%, suggesting people don’t want to share a bathroom with their carefree teenage cousins.

Car rental prices are also up — 22% — reflecting a desire to avoid the crowds at San Francisco’s Embarcadero BART station or New York City’s Penn Station. If you drive, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends pumping gas using a sanitary wipe and bringing your own food. AAA has a useful map that shows regional restrictions on things like mask-wearing, crowd sizes and other protections.

But if you must travel, airplanes are safe

Plenty of families are braced for their driveway to become home for the family eccentric. Think Cousin Eddie in the comedy National Lampoon’s Christmas Holiday, who arrives in a trashy RV with crushed beer cans and a rottweiler named Snots.

But air travel is plenty safe, say experts with Harvard’s Aviation Public Health Initiative. They found that the risk of COVID-19 transmission onboard an airplane is lower than that of other routine activities, such as grocery shopping or dining out.

Why? Like wearing a seat belt and staying seated during takeoff and landing, masks have become air travel’s new norm. And the air inside planes is well filtered and is highly localized – delivered from the top and exhausted through panels at the feet, rather than circulating widely, according to the Harvard team. Cabin air is exchanged 20 to 30 times per hour, so each viral particle would only linger two to three minutes at your seat.

But there are “gray zones” where risk is elevated, such as when people crowd onto the bridge to board the plane, walking up and down the aisle, standing in the aisle to disembark — or taking off masks for a slow, holiday-inspired cocktail.

“If somebody is eating next to me, I probably will wear my mask and try to eat at a different time,” said Dr. Edward Nardell, professor in the departments of Environmental Health and Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard. “But that may be more orchestration than is feasible on most flights.”

More advice: Skip the long line at the airport’s $10 burrito booth. Bring carry-on luggage, so you don’t have to wait at the baggage carousel. “And don’t blow it all by getting on a bus,” said Rutherford. “Get an Uber or rent a car.”

Pick your guests carefully

Beware of visitors from current “hotspots,” such as states in the upper Midwest and Great Plains. They’re more worrisome than friends and family in the Bay Area.

“I’m cautious about that for any event that brings people from outside the region into the region,” said Chin-Hong, a professor of infectious diseases at UCSF. Because Bay Area residents have been adherent to public health measures, he added, our infection rates are lower.

Want to be sure you don’t bring the virus to the holiday table? Schedule a COVID-19 test four to five days before arrival — then self-isolate until dinner time.

Keep the guest list short. And segregated.

Plenty of people will still yearn to gather around a table to eat the least appetizing of all our planet’s birds.

But feed them outside, where ventilation is good. Invite a “pod,” where family members have kept close. If you want two or three “pods,” seat them at separate but adjacent tables.

“Ventilation has become increasingly recognized as a critical factor in preventing COVID transmission,” said Chin-Hong.

Cleanliness matters, but don’t obsess, he added. “You don’t have to use disposable things. I worry less about sharing things like tongs. Or wiping them down every single time, unless you want to get disinfectant into the potato salad.”

“The advice is old-fashioned,” he said. “Keep your nose and mouth away from other noses and mouths.”

Hang onto safe traditions. But add a new one: Zoom!

Fauci, the nation’s COVID czar who leads the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that his own family’s Thanksgiving “is going to look very different this year.” In an interview with CBS Evening News, he said that his children, who live in three different states, have decided not to return home to protect his health, since he’s 79 years old and considered at higher risk.

Chin-Hong said he’ll be “doing the real thing” at his San Francisco home. “For me, comfort food is very important, with all the fixings,” he said. “You can replicate that ‘home feeling’ by the food that you eat.

“But we’re being very modest, and just having our immediate family,” he said. “My plans are are to stay at home in my own ‘bubble’ and do a lot of Zoom calls.”

Finally, experts offered seasonal reminders about Thanksgiving risks that are far older than COVID-19, and just as real: Don’t drink too much. Avoid politics. Cook the turkey to 165°F.  Refrigerate leftovers within two hours.

“And be careful about how you make the stuffing,” added Rutherford, “so you don’t give everybody Salmonella.”

Fiona Kelliher contributed to this article.

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