But that doesn’t make it any safer to gather large numbers of people — including out-of-towners — in a small, poorly ventilated space. Especially not if the guests rip off their masks to eat, drink and talk as loudly as most families do when they congregate for holidays. And since a lot of Americans clearly don’t realize how dangerous this is, I’m going to tell you what I’ve been telling my friends.
First, private gatherings are now a major force driving new infections. That’s because the coronavirus loves small, enclosed spaces. Many people think they’ll be safe as long as they’re wearing a mask or spraying down surfaces with bleach or standing six feet away from others, based on guidelines developed last spring, when people thought the virus was spread mostly by large particles that fall to the ground quickly. Since then, it’s become clear that the virus can stay airborne for a lot longer than initially thought. While masks and distance absolutely help to lower the risk of casual encounters, the longer you spend indoors with a sick person, the higher the chance that enough virus will build up in the air to infect you.
Second, tests fail. A lot. Many folks proudly tell me they’re using tests to make sure their Thanksgiving is safe. But even the most accurate tests miss a significant number of infections, as President Trump’s White House keeps vividly demonstrating. In a covid-friendly environment such as Thanksgiving dinner, it takes only one false negative — or, say, the uncle who didn’t get tested because “covid is a hoax” — to spark a superspreading event.
Third, these risks soar as community caseloads rise, and that background rate is worse than it was in the spring. Covid-19 is no longer mostly in hot spots near international airports. It is everywhere, and spreading fast. Yet many who escaped the first wave have a false sense of security, thinking they’ve had it already or that modest precautions suffice. And, mostly, they did work when background rates are low.
When there are lots of sick people in lots of closed spaces, however, viral loads climb, sometimes high enough to overwhelm whatever modest defenses you’ve erected — such as wearing a mask in the grocery store, routinely washing your hands, solemnly vowing not to attend any more concerts.
Fourth, very high community spread makes it more likely an infection will kill you. Treatments have improved considerably since early spring. But that helps only if hospitals have the “space, staff, and stuff” to provide optimal treatment. Some hospitals have already breached their limit in one or more of those categories. And because the epidemic is nationwide, rather than regional, it will get harder and harder for overstretched health systems to draw emergency assistance from other areas, as New York did in the spring. So the risk is mounting that large Thanksgiving celebrations will be followed by small Christmas funerals, as the Mississippi Board of Health so pungently put it.
With a tidal wave of cases about to crash over hospitals, we should all do our best not to become that “young healthy patient” whose unexpected need for high-flow oxygen means that someone’s grandmother dies alone. Or the asymptomatic spreader who infected Grandma in the first place. Or just one of thousands of covid cases that pushed the system to its limit, leaving more victims of car accidents, heart attacks and strokes without adequate treatment.
All these considerations become more urgent when two highly effective vaccine candidates might be available soon, possibly even by year’s end, which should make us more cautious. If there were never a vaccine, and Mom died from the infection she caught at Thanksgiving — well, what were we going to do, cancel Thanksgiving forever? But if Mom dies of an infection she could have avoided by waiting a few months to get a shot? That’s not only a damn shame but is apt to make Thanksgiving rather fraught for years to come.
And that’s why instead of suggesting nine handy tips to make your big family get-together safer, I’m suggesting only one thing: Maybe just don’t. The turkey will still taste good in a few months, when everyone is vaccinated — and next year’s turkey will taste a lot better if everyone’s still around to eat it.