How to Have a Virus-Free Thanksgiving

As many of us prepare to hit the road or head to the airport to reunite with loved ones this Thanksgiving, it’s always important to stay alert on COVID.

Although the coronavirus is hopefully not as prominent as it once was, it and its many sub-variants are still around. In the Bay Area, there are two other viruses to contend with — influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. Combined, these three viruses are strain local hospitals as everyone’s case counts rise, leading some experts to worry about the potential for Thanksgiving triggering a “tripledemic.”

That said, the past two years of the pandemic have also demonstrated how vital community and social connections are to our health. Lockdowns and long quarantines have led to an unprecedented global increase in solitude and anxiety and depression. Here in the United States, new evidence suggests that 61% of young adults experience a feeling of “serious loneliness”. That’s why occasions like Thanksgiving are important — they provide a much-needed opportunity to connect with family and friends, and potentially alleviate some of these mental health issues.

So how can we stay safe while enjoying the holidays?

The first step is to understand that everyone’s risk tolerance for coronavirus infection is different. For some, contracting the virus may not present a major challenge, but for many the infection can be debilitating. People with comorbidity medical conditions, such as cancer or diabetes, or those with reduced immunity, continue to be at risk of developing serious health consequences from the virus. In addition, long COVID or post-COVID – the spectrum of symptoms experienced by people after a first infection – is still a poorly understood phenomenon that may have lasting impact on a person’s life for months or years.

If you haven’t already, consider bringing up the subject of risk tolerance with your loved ones before the big gathering. Hosts can ask guests what kind of protection would make them feel comfortable or ask them to do some quick tests beforehand. Guests can also disclose to each other or the host in advance if they have recently been infected so that others can make informed decisions about attending.

For those using public transportation to get to Thanksgiving dinner, masking is another important tool at your disposal. miscommunication and the politicization of face masks, particularly around when to use them and which ones to use, have led to a rapid decline in their adoption. But high quality face masks, such as the N95 or KN95, which are available online and to many local storesare effective against infection and can be an important tool in crowded places such as the airport or inside the plane.

For those hosting, having enough rapid home coronavirus tests on hand can also help prevent the spread of infection, as can increased ventilation wherever guests congregate. Whenever possible, using outdoor space is a smarter choice to reduce circulating virus particles and prevent the spread of the virus.

Finally, it is prudent to develop contingency plans for the scenario if someone becomes infected, either while traveling or on the day. Be prepared with a plan showing how and where guests could self-isolate, or if necessary, how to get Paxlovidcan give everyone a little more peace of mind and more ability to be present and connect.

In the long run, nothing will prevent the spread of the virus better than getting vaccinated or receiving the final booster. With the holidays approaching, instituting some of these practices can go a long way to keeping everyone safe.

Taking the time to connect with loved ones while on vacation is essential to overall health. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a research initiative conducted for more than 80 years, has shown that investing in good relationships has a positive impact on the long-term physical and mental health and well-being of participants. Staying vigilant about preventing the spread of viral infection is a small investment to ensure everyone can celebrate the holiday.

Dr. Junaid Nabi is a physician and senior researcher at the Aspen Institute, specializing in global health systems. He is a member of the World Health Organization Regulatory Considerations Working Group. Twitter: @JunaidNabiMD

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