Forgoing Thanksgiving travel or gatherings is ‘best way’ to avoid virus

With Thanksgiving a week away and coronavirus cases exploding nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday recommended against traveling or gathering for the holiday, urging Americans to consider celebrating in their own households instead.

In the agency’s first news briefing in months, officials said they were alarmed to see 1 million new cases reported across the United States within the past week. As the nation’s death toll since the start of the pandemic reached 250,000, officials spoke of the risks in stark terms, warning that as friends and relatives get together over the holidays, they could inadvertently bring the coronavirus with them. Tragedy could follow, they said.

“At the individual household level, what’s at stake is basically the increased chance of one of your loved ones becoming sick and then being hospitalized and dying,” said Henry Walke, the CDC’s covid-19 incident manager.

Beyond that, he said, holiday-related infections could spread through communities, reaching other vulnerable people and accelerating the already dire outbreak.

The CDC’s dour holiday guidance came amid more promising news in the race to develop effective vaccines, with the University of Oxford and the drugmaker AstraZeneca reporting that their version had produced strong results in adults both young and old.

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, meanwhile, said Friday they will file for emergency authorization of their coronavirus vaccine, a landmark moment that signals that a powerful tool to help control the pandemic could begin to be available within weeks.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a briefing Thursday.

But there were also ample reminders Thursday of the darkness that looms just ahead.

With states across the country setting new case records daily, some continued to tighten restrictions in a bid to tamp down a nationwide fall outbreak that has vastly exceeded previous waves of infection in the spring and summer.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu joined the growing ranks of Republicans to drop resistance to mask mandates. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), meanwhile, announced he was ordering people to stay home and businesses to close between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. in the worst-hit parts of his state.

“The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of the pandemic, and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge,” he said.

But other governors — many in Republican-led states that are among the country’s hardest hit — continued Thursday to resist new restrictions. And President-elect Joe Biden indicated there are limits to how far he will be willing to go, insisting at a news conference that there will be “no national shutdown.”

“I am not going to shut down the country, period,” he said. “I’m going to shut down the virus.”

The CDC had previously noted the risk of holiday travel and recommended that travelers take steps such as checking local restrictions, wearing a mask, maintaining distance and getting a flu shot. The new guidance says that “postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year” and offers questions Americans should ask themselves before making a trip.

Among those questions: whether anyone included in Thanksgiving plans is at increased risk of becoming very sick from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus; and whether cases are high or increasing or hospitals are overwhelmed in a traveler’s community or destination. Those wanting to travel should also consider whether they or those they plan to visit recently had contact with others and whether they would need to take a bus, train or airplane, where distancing could be more difficult, the CDC said.

“If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes,’ you should consider making other plans, such as hosting a virtual gathering or delaying your travel,” the new guidance says. “It’s important to talk with the people you live with and your family and friends about the risks of traveling.”

It is not only travel that the CDC is advising against. Officials also recommended avoiding gatherings involving members of different households, clarifying that a household member is a person who has been living in the home for at least 14 days. Students returning from college should stay isolated before leaving campus and limit indoor interactions with relatives once home.

“It’s bringing together the members of the separate households where the risk is,” said Erin Sauber-Schatz, head of the CDC’s Community Intervention and Critical Population Task Force.

The Thanksgiving holiday comes as coronavirus cases have skyrocketed across the United States, with the seven-day average of new cases hovering at more than 160,000 on Thursday, according to Washington Post tracking. The nation’s death toll since the start of the pandemic reached 250,000 on Thursday, and on Thursday alone, more than 2,000 deaths were reported.

The worsening national picture has heightened concerns about Thanksgiving, with public health experts fearful that travel and traditional gatherings could contribute to the surging infections.

“I’m just as tired of this pandemic as everyone else is,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, said in an interview. She urged that precautions be taken despite the fatigue and the desire to see family members. “This year, we’re doing Thanksgiving over Zoom, even though my parents live 45 minutes away.”

Virtual gatherings, or celebrations with only the members of a household, are “the safest choice this Thanksgiving,” the CDC guidelines say.

For those still planning to travel, the guidelines offer tips specific to overnight stays. When weighing whether to stay overnight, people should consider whether anyone they plan to visit is at an increased risk from covid-19. They should also make plans ahead of time for isolation, medical care, basic care and travel home should someone become infected during the visit.

Additionally, the CDC said, visitors should wash their clothes and masks and keep their luggage away from common areas. Masks should be worn indoors and removed only when eating, drinking and sleeping. People should maintain six feet of distance at all times from people from other households.

Hosts should improve ventilation by opening windows or doors or putting central air and heating on continuous circulation. People should spend time together outdoors, taking a walk or sitting six feet apart for interpersonal interaction. Singing and shouting should be avoided, especially inside. Pets should be treated like human family members and kept from interacting with people outside the household.

Guests and hosts should monitor for symptoms of the coronavirus, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath.

However, CDC officials strongly recommended that Americans stay home this Thanksgiving, despite acknowledging that people are tired months into the pandemic and yearning to reconnect with relatives. Walke said he will spend the holiday at home, even though he has not seen his parents in months.

“All Americans want to do the right thing to protect their families, even when there are hard decisions to be made,” he said. “We all must do our best to protect those around us.”

The CDC’s warning came on a day when the White House coronavirus task force used its first briefing in months mostly to tout its achievements on the pandemic.

Vice President Pence acknowledged the rising infections and death toll at the start of his remarks, after several weeks in which he and President Trump have not publicly commented on the worsening outbreak. Speaking from the White House briefing room, Pence also promised that “help is on the way” as he touted positive results from Pfizer and Moderna on their vaccines.

Both Anthony S. Fauci and Deborah Birx — scientific advisers who had been sidelined by the White House for months amid sharp disagreements with Trump — spoke at the briefing. Scott Atlas, Trump’s pandemic adviser who has advocated elements of a hands-off, herd-immunity strategy, was notably missing.

Fauci reassured Americans that the vaccine process was not rushed. Rather, he said, the speed with which Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines were developed was a “reflection of the extraordinary scientific advancements.”

Fauci and Birx urged Americans to take the virus seriously and not let up on public health measures to mitigate its spread.

“If you’re fighting a battle and the cavalry is on the way, you don’t stop shooting. You keep going until the cavalry gets here,” Fauci said.

Paulina Firozi, Carolyn Y. Johnson and William Wan contributed to this report.