Johns Hopkins health experts on how to safely navigate Thanksgiving gatherings, travel

The holiday that typically pulls relatives of all ages together for a meal may be vastly different this year as COVID-19 cases surge nationwide.

People are considering whether or not to host traditional Thanksgiving gatherings with turkey and trimmings or travel for the holiday, and experts with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health are offering advice on both.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said families planning in-person events should figure some things out ahead of time.

“What is the risk tolerance of everybody going there? Are there people with high-risk factors for severe disease? And is everybody on the same page before you go?” Adalja said. “Any college student basically coming home — for the most part — should be thought of as a high-risk contact.”

Gathering outside is safer than inside, but if you must be inside, Adalja said you should make sure you have enough space for social distancing. He suggests creating areas where people who live in the same household can sit near each other. Then, other family members who want to interact with them can put on masks or face shields before doing so.

“Bringing your own food and keeping some distance between yourself and the other households would be a really important way to help reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission,” said Keri Althoff, associate professor in the department of epidemiology.

Another thing that is crucial if everyone is inside: air flow.

“Open the windows; turn on fans; increase ventilation. Turn on your central AC or heating for that continuous circulation, and remind guests that they may need to dress in layers, as it might be drafty,” Althoff said.

With Thanksgiving less than two weeks away, Althoff said those planning in-person gatherings should already be limiting contact with other people to reduce the chance of catching COVID-19 before the big day.

There’s also a lot to consider if you’d like to travel for Thanksgiving.

“Review states’ policies for quarantining visitors from other states, and also know your home state’s policies on quarantining for your return, as well as the policies of your employer, your day care provider and your school,” Althoff said.

When considering the safest way to travel, Althoff said you should ask a bus, rail or airline company if they are operating at full capacity and whether there will be an empty seat or some kind of space between you and other travelers. Also ask what other coronavirus-related precautions the company is taking, and read online reviews from people who have recently used those companies’ services.

“Driving in a personal vehicle can be less risky than flying or taking a bus or train,” Althoff said.

A recent study paid for by the airline industry found circulating air in planes keeps the coronavirus risk low, but to get on board, you may face long airport lines and crowded shuttles, increasing your risk.

“Although evidence does suggest air circulated in planes is not the biggest threat, crowded airports with lots of high-touch surfaces are high risk,” Althoff said.

Traveling for Thanksgiving is really not a good idea, Adalja said, if you live in an area with a lot of coronavirus cases and restrictions. He suggests making alternative plans.

Althoff said that if you decide to celebrate in a different way, figure out how to make the holiday meaningful.

“Make sure the different households that you connect to on a virtual platform are sharing the same dish, or perhaps you’re making cards for those who you cannot see in person. Maybe you have a drive-by parade to wave hello to grandparents,” she said. “Remember that we will be telling stories from these holidays for generations to come, so make sure you do something memorable.”


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