How to celebrate a virus-free Thanksgiving

Still, as many of us prepare to hit the road or head to the airport to meet up with loved ones this Thanksgiving holiday, it’s important to remain vigilant regarding COVID.

Although the coronavirus isn’t as big as it used to be, we wish it and its many sub-varieties are still here. There are two other viruses to contend with in the Bay Area — influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. Taken together, these three viruses are putting a strain on local hospitals as case numbers each skyrocket, leading some experts to worry that Thanksgiving may trigger a “triple epidemic.”

However, the last two years of the pandemic have also shown how important community and social connections are to our health. Lockdowns and protracted quarantines have led to unprecedented global increases in loneliness, anxiety and depression. Here in the US, new evidence suggests that 61% of young adults feel “seriously lonely.” 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 those psychological challenges.

So how can we stay safe while enjoying the vacation?

The first step is to understand that everyone’s risk tolerance for coronavirus infection is different. For some, contracting the virus may not present much of a challenge, but for many, the infection can be crippling. People with comorbid conditions such as cancer or diabetes, or those with compromised immunity remain at risk of developing serious health consequences from the virus. Additionally, long-COVID or post-COVID – the spectrum of symptoms people experience after an initial infection – is still a poorly understood phenomenon that can have a lasting impact on a person’s life for months or years.

If you haven’t already, consider bringing up risk tolerance with loved ones before the big gathering. Hosts can ask guests what type of protection they would be comfortable with, or ask them to run quick tests beforehand. Guests can also let themselves or the host know in advance if they have recently been infected, so others can make informed decisions about whether to attend.

For those who use public transportation to get to Thanksgiving dinner, masking is another important tool at your disposal. Misunderstanding and the politicization of face masks, particularly around when and which to use, has led to a rapid decline in their acceptance. But quality face masks like the N95s or KN95s, which are available online and in numerous local stores, are effective against infection and can be an important tool in crowded places like the airport or on a plane.

For hosts, having enough rapid coronavirus tests available at home can also help prevent the spread of infection, as ventilation is improved wherever guests gather. Wherever possible, using outdoor areas is a wiser choice to reduce circulating virus particles and prevent the spread of the virus.

Finally, it is wise to develop contingency plans in case someone catches it while traveling or on the day of infection. Being prepared with a plan for how and where guests can isolate or how to receive Paxlovid if needed can give everyone a little more peace of mind and more ability to be present and connect.

In the long term, nothing prevents the spread of the virus like vaccination or the latest booster shot. With the holiday approaching, adopting some of these practices can go a long way towards keeping everyone safe.

Taking time over the holidays to keep in touch with loved ones is crucial for overall health. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a research initiative spanning more than 80 years, found that investing in good relationships has a positive impact on participants’ long-term physical and mental health and well-being. Staying awake to prevent the spread of viral infections is a small investment in making sure everyone can celebrate the holiday.

dr Junaid Nabi is a Physician and Senior Fellow at the Aspen Institute with a focus on global health systems. He is a member of the Working Group on Regulatory Considerations at the World Health Organization. Twitter: @JunaidNabiMD

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