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Recent warnings from health officials about forgoing Thanksgiving gatherings may sound extreme. How dangerous can it be to get together with a few family members or friends?
Data from Canada, which celebrated Thanksgiving on Oct. 12, offers a look at what can happen in the U.S. if precautions aren’t heeded.
COVID cases were on the rise in Canada before the country’s Thanksgiving holiday. Then, the daily number of confirmed cases nearly doubled from Oct. 12 to Nov. 10 across Canada.
“It’s not that we were flat and all of a sudden Thanksgiving happened and there we see an increase,” Laura Rosella, associate professor and epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, told Time. But, she added, “the reason why we’re fairly confident Thanksgiving did increase cases is that we saw our highest numbers yet in the two weeks following Thanksgiving, which is consistent with the incubation period, when people would show symptoms and get reported.”
Quebec, which is the hardest-hit Canadian province, surpassed 100,000 confirmed positive cases nearly two weeks after the Thanksgiving holiday. Ontario, the second hardest hit province, had more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases on one day for the first time on Oct. 25.
“The leading source of exposures for active cases right now are close contacts, and many of the cases that we are seeing now are the result of spread over Thanksgiving when families gathered together,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer, said in an update in late October. The western province also saw record high COVID case numbers shortly after the holiday.
“People did not mean to spread COVID, but it is a reminder where social gatherings, where social distancing and masking are not used consistently are a significant risk for spread.”
Thanksgiving gatherings potentially played a larger role in Canada’s spread than it seems because many provinces instituted restrictions on movie theaters and indoor dining around the same time as the October holiday.
Public health officials and governors across the U.S., including Maine’s Gov. Janet Mills, have urged Americans to skip large gatherings and to avoid travelling this Thanksgiving.
Gathering together on Thanksgiving is “one of the riskiest things we can do” at this time, Mills said during a press briefing on Wednesday. She urged Mainers to consider whether such gatherings and travelling are necessary, not just happy traditions, but truly necessary.
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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people celebrate only with people from within their own households. If people do choose to invite others into their homes, the CDC recommends they invite only people who live within their own community, and to stay masked and socially distant if they will all be indoors together.
Despite this and other warnings, nearly 40 percent of Americans plan to attend a holiday gathering with 10 or more people. Nearly a third will not ask guests to wear masks and a quarter won’t practice social distancing, according to an Ohio State University poll.
As we’ve written before, we, and public health officials, know the importance of connections with family and friends, and that those connections are even more important during the stress and isolation of the ongoing pandemic. But, this year, as the number of COVID cases rises in Maine and across the country, indoor gatherings of family and friends bring new, avoidable, dangers.
Skipping a large Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends is hard. But, this is the time for prudent alternatives, such a gathering via Zoom or eating your favorite foods with just your spouse.
As the Canadian experience shows, it is better to have a non-traditional Thanksgiving than to find that COVID is on the menu along with the turkey and stuffing.