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WASHINGTON — “Come and take it,” the combative message read below a stylized image of a Thanksgiving turkey. The reference was to a famous statement of defiance, one harking back to the Texas Revolution of 1835. It was a U.S. senator from that state, Ted Cruz, who posted an image of the turkey flag on Twitter on Nov. 21, 2020, in apparent anger over what he saw as onerous public health measures that would dampen the Thanksgiving spirit (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had asked people not to travel for the holiday, but millions did so anyway).
A year later, the situation is different — but also too dismayingly close to 2020 for those who had hoped the pandemic would be over by now. Instead, the seven-day average of new cases has risen above 90,000, according to the CDC, while close to 1,000 people daily are dying from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The last time Americans gathered to celebrate a major national holiday, on July 4 (apologies, Halloween), both of those metrics were much more encouraging. The force with which the Delta variant hit later that month reversed many of the gains made during the spring and early summer, delaying a return to normal that seemed so close only months ago.
Even with worries of a new surge growing, nobody is trying to “cancel” Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah or any other celebration. In fact, public health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s top medical adviser, have routinely said that vaccinated people can have a normal holiday. “If you get vaccinated, and your family is vaccinated, you can feel good about enjoying a typical Thanksgiving, Christmas, with your family and close friends,” Fauci said last week.
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, says she will take her children to see her 87-year-old father, even though he has recently developed a condition that weakens his immune system.
“We are having a perfectly normal Thanksgiving with hugs, kisses, closeness and a focus on family,” Gandhi wrote to Yahoo News in an email. “We have new health problems in the family but sacrificed a lot by not seeing each other for so long, so came together this year. There are no caveats to this (and no masks).”
Gandhi worries that not enough emphasis is being made on the gains that have been made in the last year against the coronavirus, with nearly 200 million people inoculated with exceptionally effective vaccines that were developed in record time. “Despite the current rhetoric in some mainstream media that sounds much more Thanksgiving 2020 than Thanksgiving 2021, I think that Americans should truly be able to enjoy the holiday this year together,” she says.
Vaccines are the path to a normal holiday, says Dr. Lucy McBride, a physician in Washington, D.C., who has written extensively on the pandemic. “If you have a Thanksgiving gathering of all vaccinated people, I can’t think of a good reason for it not being completely normal,” McBride told Yahoo News, lamenting that reports of breakthrough infections and calls for masking have led some people to conclude that the vaccines are far less effective than they really are.
“We really don’t seem to trust the vaccines as we should,” McBride said. She described her own Thanksgiving plans in a recent newsletter: “I’ll spend the day with my parents, three teenage kids, husband, two brothers, uncle, two cousins, cousin-in-law, six young nieces and three dogs. All of the adults and teens are vaccinated. The nieces are partially vaccinated. We’ll spend most of the day outside. We will dine indoors. We will drink and be merry.”
Some 60 million people who could be vaccinated aren’t, meaning that for many families a fully vaccinated Thanksgiving will simply be impossible. The larger the gathering, the harder it will be to monitor guests’ vaccination status, which is why Fauci and others have advised people to keep gatherings relatively small.
Children are another concern. Because vaccinations for children between 5 and 11 began only recently, no children will be fully vaccinated by Thanksgiving, though some 2 million could get there by Christmas (full vaccination status is achieved two weeks after a second shot, which needs to come three weeks after the first).
But “the risk is pretty low” to begin with for children, McBride said, and even lower if they are already partially vaccinated. Some people, though, will want to take extra precautions, even as others conclude that the time for pandemic precautions is through.
Earlier this week, Virginia Tech aerosol scientist Dr. Linsey Marr was criticized on social media and some conservative outlets by suggesting that children could “wear masks, eat quickly and stay away from the older adults when eating.” Some of that criticism may have been motivated by an ideological antipathy to masking, but Marr’s suggestion may have also triggered a backlash because it was a reminder that we are still living with the virus, and all the related inconveniences — not to mention the physical, emotional and social pressures — that it brings.
The Biden administration has been at pains to avoid dampening the holiday spirit, even as it studiously avoids flouting rules the way the Trump administration routinely did. On Monday evening, the Bidens celebrated “Friendsgiving” with military families at Fort Bragg, N.C. As the president spoke, some guests sat masked, while others showed their faces (both the president and the first lady were unmasked as he delivered his remarks; both are vaccinated and have received their booster shots).
Jeff Zients, who heads the White House pandemic response team, reiterated the message of tempered optimism during a Monday afternoon press briefing. “There's no question that we are headed into a very different Thanksgiving compared to last year,” Zients told reporters, “when millions of families were unable to celebrate the holiday together.”
But does that mean that Thanksgiving 2021 will be something close to normal, in the pre-pandemic sense of the word? Or will it be a new normal that sets our course for gatherings for the foreseeable future? Or are we in some vague middle ground that hovers between the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end?
Those are the questions many Americans are asking as they prepare to endure yet another pandemic holiday season, where festivity may be tempered with concerns about breakthrough infections or a new coronavirus spike.
Vaccinated people are unlikely to catch the virus in the first place, though they can transmit it if they do so. Yet millions of Americans have underlying conditions that potentially make them more vulnerable. And many people are understandably more protective of their children’s health than they are even of their own.
Nor does it help that 28 percent of Americans believe that the medical establishment is hiding harmful effects of the coronavirus vaccines from the public.
Which is all to say that there are just enough varieties of uncertainty to justify continued caution for some. Breakthrough cases are rare, but they do happen. Children fare much better than adults if infected, but they are not invincible. Long COVID remains a mystery, and new variants continue to be a threat.
“Some would happily accept the risk of getting COVID to spend time with their family,” says Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University who has frequently challenged conventional wisdom about how to approach the pandemic. “Others might look at the same risk and decide they do not want to subject themselves to it,” he wrote in an email to Yahoo News. “And of course, this risk varies so sharply with age and the presence of certain comorbidities, like obesity and diabetes.”
For some, the risk isn’t worth it, at least not yet, but a majority of Americans are eager to return to normal.
A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 57 percent of registered voters said they planned to celebrate Thanksgiving indoors this year, with family and friends, a near doubling from 2020, when only 30 percent of registered voters who responded to the poll said they would be comfortable having such an indoor celebration.
Caught in between the highly cautious and the completely carefree are millions of Americans who simply want to know if they must continue to adhere to earlier measures, like holding events outdoors, or whether they can gather around a table indoors, without windows open to the late autumn chill, without the aforementioned masks or dispensers of hand sanitizer.
The hand sanitizer could have been dispensed with long ago. The rest is somewhat more complicated.
“It’s really starting to come down to individual risk tolerance,” McBride said. “There's no way you can say Thanksgiving is safe or unsafe — it’s about balancing harms.”
She and others point out that isolation and anxiety are detrimental to health too. “We need to think of other people not as vectors of disease but as vessels of love and compassion,” McBride told Yahoo News.
In addition to vaccines, rapid tests provide a potential layer of protection. Though somewhat less accurate than the kind of diagnostic tests that are evaluated at a laboratory, they can return results within minutes and give an accurate snapshot of a large cohort. However, while the Biden administration has expanded the availability of rapid tests, they remain difficult to find.
“They should be free, widely distributed,” said Dr. Eric Topol, founding director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. “This has been a big national blunder.”
The cost of rapid tests should come down soon, while availability is set to expand. But those developments could take weeks, meaning that the additional protection those tests could make possible will remain unavailable to many families on Thanksgiving.
There are also potent therapeutics from Pfizer and Merck that prevent people with COVID-19 from dying. And while the government has already contracted to buy both treatments, neither is available just yet.
Bhattacharya, the Stanford professor, has a simple solution, one predicted in studies that suggest asymptomatic spread of the coronavirus is “vanishingly small,” as he put it.
“I would advise people who have COVID-like symptoms to not come to Thanksgiving,” he wrote in an email. “If someone is vaccinated, they should fear getting COVID about as much as they fear getting other respiratory infections. Given this fact, I strongly recommend that they live their life without fear. Opportunities to get together for meaningful time with friends and family are not something to take for granted, and COVID should not get in the way.”
Explore how the Delta variant correlates with the national political landscape in this 3D experience from the Yahoo immersive team.