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Experts are advising people in the United States to keep Thanksgiving gatherings small and hold them outside if possible. JILL CHEN/Stocksy
  • Canadian Thanksgiving, which takes place about 6 weeks before Thanksgiving in the United States, led to a surge in COVID-19 cases.
  • Experts urge people to reconsider large family gatherings for the holidays and limit festivities to people who live in their immediate household.
  • They say that traveling and gathering in large groups, especially indoors, is a surefire way to accelerate the spread of the new coronavirus.

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In a normal year, millions of people in the United States would be planning on traveling to Thanksgiving festivities and reconnecting with friends and family.

In 2020, as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues on, health experts are urging Americans to take a different approach for the holiday weekend.

Anyone in the United States who doubts the possibility of Thanksgiving becoming a superspreader event can look to their northern neighbor for some perspective.

In Canada, where Thanksgiving takes place in October, public health officials say they’ve noticed an uptick in new COVID-19 cases following their holiday period.

They said indoor Thanksgiving gatherings, a lack of restrictions, and cold weather are all factors in the recent increase in cases in Canada.

Experts interviewed by Healthline say the Canadian situation shows that although the prospect of eschewing big family gatherings for Thanksgiving and the upcoming holiday season might be disappointing, it’s in everyone’s best interest.

“My best advice is to stay home and spend the Thanksgiving holiday only with members of your immediate family and avoid long-distance travel — plane or car — if at all possible,” Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency room physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline.

As winter’s cold weather sets in, outdoor gatherings — which carry a lower risk of transmission and often make physical, or social, distancing easier — are no longer an option in many parts of the country.

The cold drives people indoors, and these indoor gatherings make it easier for COVID-19 to spread.

“Like every medical provider, I’m incredibly concerned,” Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases and director of the office of clinical trials at Stony Brook University on Long Island in New York, told Healthline.

“We’re seeing more COVID-19 cases, even among those populations that have been wearing masks and social distancing,” she said. “Also, socializing now is really restricted to mostly indoor socializing. We shouldn’t be socializing, but if we are, it’s often indoors. Even wearing masks, socializing indoors has a higher risk because the air in the room is contained in the room and not open to outside air.”

Nachman also pointed out that seasonal viral illnesses compound this risk.

“Flu isn’t the only respiratory virus that we see in the winter,” she said. “There’s a whole smorgasbord of respiratory viruses that we see, and any of those hitting at the same time as COVID-19 creates a much higher risk for hospitalization than having either one of them alone.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — not to mention most health professionals — have made it clear: Large family gatherings should be avoided whenever possible.

Because smaller gatherings still carry risk, Glatter recommends making a few modifications.

“Limiting gatherings to 10 persons or fewer is ideal, as well as holding Thanksgiving dinner outside, with heating lamps and blankets if necessary,” he said.

“If not, make sure you keep the windows open to increase air circulation, depending on where you live and weather permitting. Wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and hand hygiene are still an essential part of any larger family get-together,” Glatter said.

Dr. Scott Lillibridge, director of emergency response for the International Medical Corps, where he’s helping lead the humanitarian organization’s U.S. response to the pandemic, told Healthline that screening potential dinner guests is a good idea.

Lillibridge said he asks guests whether they’ve been exposed to someone who’s tested positive for the virus, or have been somewhere where there’s growing or active transmission.

He also recommends asking about travel plans, as using transportation such as an airplane carries an increased risk.

“Don’t be shy about screening your friends and family before they come over to learn about their risk category,” he said. “If they just came from the hospital treating COVID-19 patients, you might have someone who is at high risk for the disease. On the other hand, if someone stays at home for the previous 2 weeks without outside contact, the likelihood of exposure to disease is much lower.”

Lillibridge also said that biting the bullet and canceling festivities altogether is an option worth considering for anyone who’s high risk or feeling uncomfortable.

A low-key Thanksgiving and holiday season might be disappointing, but if there’s any consolation, it’s that things should look better when the festive season rolls around next year.

“The current vaccine race is historic in terms of the rapid development, resources, and the redirection of the industry to an entirely new priority,” Lillibridge said.

Right now, there are several potential vaccines that are close to gaining Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

Lillibridge noted that Pfizer’s vaccine will likely be approved within a month or so, and subsequently be distributed to the first priority group, which consists of healthcare workers and first responders.

Although a widely available vaccine should dramatically improve the landscape, there are certain questions that won’t be answered until people start getting their shots.

“Though we know some of these vaccines are reporting 90 percent to 94 percent effectiveness, we don’t yet know how they perform in all age groups. We don’t know how long the immunity will last,” Lillibridge said. “We will only get answers to these questions after we start vaccinating people.”

“I know it’s difficult, but we may have a vaccine in a few months, so you just need to hold on a little bit longer,” he said. “More options to control this pandemic and protect your health are just around the corner.”