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‘Feel free to pass the gravy’: Celebrate Thanksgiving 2021 safely with these expert tips

Many families are looking forward to reuniting in 2021 after the cancellation of in-person events and holiday gatherings in 2020.

People who are planning to celebrate with friends and loved ones for Thanksgiving on Nov. 25 might be wondering how to mitigate the risk of catching or spreading the coronavirus during their gatherings.

It’s common knowledge that COVID-19 spreads more easily indoors, and asymptomatic people can spread the virus, too. Community transmission of the coronavirus is high in every Arizona county, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and new infections are on the rise in most states, including Arizona, for the first time in two months, USA Today reported.

In light of these trends, we spoke with Kelly Reynolds — a professor at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health as well as the director of the school’s Environment, Exposure Science & Risk Assessment Center — to learn more about what people should consider before hosting or attending Thanksgiving gatherings this month.

An indoor Thanksgiving where everyone is vaccinated

Question: Let’s look at possible gathering scenarios. What do you say about celebrating Thanksgiving indoors at home with family and friends who are fully vaccinated?

Answer: If everyone is fully vaccinated, then I think your celebration could be pretty close to normal. But there’s obviously conditions of people who maybe are immunocompromised, and their ability to mount antibodies against the virus, even if they’re vaccinated, may be less than somebody else’s.

And then we also have this timeline where many of those who got vaccinated early on when the vaccines were available, that time frame is starting to sort of wane in terms of what our protective levels of the antibodies are against the virus.

So we’re starting to see people who are vaccinated getting the infection now — not as serious and typically not associated with hospitalizations — but they can still get sick, and it could be serious depending on your immune status. So precautions are still needed; if everyone is vaccinated, that’s your best scenario.

But it doesn’t mean that everything is risk-free. It just means the risk has been dramatically reduced. So I think individuals still have to weigh their own susceptibility, consider when their vaccination was and could their immunity be waning. If it’s been eight months-plus, then there’s the potential that you could still get the infection.

It’s still a good idea, I think, to stay distanced as much as possible, even to wear masks. Even if you’re vaccinated, if you have people who are very immunocompromised, they could still be at risk. So there’s still the option of wearing a mask even if you’re vaccinated and when you’re in an indoor environment.

Q: Is opening doors and windows when possible still important?

A: Yes, so ventilation remains a really effective mitigation strategy. Just exchanging the stale air in a room with fresh air is going to dilute any virus that might be circulating.

I’m not a big fan of fans because if you don’t have open windows you’re just moving the air around, and you could actually disperse somebody shedding the virus; you could disperse it to more square footage of the room if you’re just blowing the air around.

But opening windows and having air exchanges, increasing ventilation rates in the room, is a really good idea.

What about hosting unvaccinated people?

Q: Would your suggestions change if the gathering could include vaccinated and unvaccinated people?

A: I would change our recommendations in that scenario because you obviously have people who are absolutely vulnerable to infection, and you have people who are not vaccinated and could carry the infection just like what we were dealing with in the past; they could carry asymptomatically.

If you have a child who’s under the age of 5 and not eligible right now for vaccination, they could be carriers, and many of them are going to schools and they’re interacting with a lot of different people. And it’s very possible that they could be bringing the virus to others who are not vaccinated or who have waning immunity or who are highly vulnerable.

So in this case, I would hope that maybe you can move your celebration outdoors where there’s natural air exchange going on all the time and, again, keep your distance in terms of the hugging and kissing and things like that with one another. That’s still something I would say to avoid if it’s not necessary — and especially if you have mixed vaccine status — and wearing masks when you’re indoors around each other is absolutely essential.

And of course, the other thing that you can do just for peace of mind is to ask everyone to test. It’s readily available now. They can test the day before, even the day of the celebration, just to see if they test positive. And certainly, people should be very much aware of how they’re feeling, any symptoms they may be having, and resist the urge to say, ‘Oh, it’s probably just allergies or a cold.’ Well, it might be COVID.

So let’s do a test. Let’s make sure we’re not going to be spreading the virus during our celebrations.

Should people wear masks while socializing outside?

Q: What about if the celebration is outdoors? Should people wear masks?

A: We’re talking about kind of a layered approach. The mask is one more barrier of protection that you can have even if you’re outdoors, because in the right sort of alignment of conditions, if you’re in close proximity to somebody for a lengthy period of time and there’s not a lot of air exchange going on, even if you’re outside, the air could still be stagnant. (If) you’re on a patio and enclosed spaces, you could still transmit the virus to another person. And if you’re not vaccinated, that’s a layer of protection that’s missing.

I think it’s sort of an individual assessment. If you’re going to be around people who are highly vulnerable to the disease and really severe adverse outcomes, or if you’re that person who’s concerned and wants an extra layer of protection, then you could wear your mask outdoors.

But we know that a mask outdoors is probably not the most prevalent mitigating factor. It’s the actual benefit of the outdoor air and the ability to distance… The mask is another layer of protection that could prevent that perfect storm of alignment where the virus is coming toward you and you have a mask that’s preventing that from reaching you.

Is it safe to eat at a restaurant?

Q: Do you have thoughts on people planning to eat at a restaurant or other public venue?

A: Eating out definitely is going to increase your potential risk. You’re (in a room with) mixed vaccination status (and) you’re typically in somewhat enclosed environments, even if you’re eating outdoors, which is better than indoors. You might be under a covered patio, and technically that’s considered outdoors. But how much air exchange is really happening in that space, and how close are you to other people who could be transmitting the virus?

So something I recommend then, in terms of being around large groups in any public setting, is to think about what’s happening with community rates of infection. If you’re traveling somewhere else, what are the community rates of infection? That’s sort of a marker for what your potential risk might be.

And in Arizona, our (COVID-19) rates are going up. When you look at the trends in the data, we’ve been steadily — kind of slowly but steadily — increasing our incidence rates. So in our community, I think it’s a little bit risky to go out in public areas where you’re going to be in close proximity to a lot of people, and I think that would include many of our restaurants.

It’s a weighing of our own personal status or our own personal vulnerabilities, our own personal vaccine status and whether or not you want to wear a mask.

I watch people walk into a restaurant wearing a mask and then they sit at their table and they take their mask off. And, you know, wearing it for part of the time is better maybe than not wearing it at all. But the majority of your time is (spent sitting) at that table around the people who are in close proximity at other tables around you.

When you’re passing by people, you’re having very short periods of time where there’s not much opportunity for virus spread. It’s sitting at your table (when) there’s increased opportunity for virus spread.

So if you’re not vaccinated, I would think that would be an activity to avoid — you know, public areas in general.

Are single-use items and disinfecting still important?

Q: Last year, we discussed making single-use utensils and plates available at Thanksgiving. What’s the guidance now that we know more about the coronavirus?

A: I think I really would recommend, rather than relying on those strategies — which probably are minimally effective — is really looking at getting people to test before they come and verify that they’re negative.

So I would say testing and vaccination are the things we should really focus on and then feel free to pass the gravy.

Because we know COVID doesn’t survive very long on surfaces, but it still can survive for a period of time. So I would say it’s still important to remember disinfecting surfaces, especially where you’re preparing food or serving food. And even if COVID doesn’t survive long, there are many other enteric- or gut-related pathogens that can survive for days to weeks.

COVID-19 testing, vaccination and booster resources

According to the CDC, people who received the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines who are in one of the following categories are eligible for a third dose at least six months after their second dose:

Adults 18 and older who received Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine are eligible for a booster at least two months after their first shot.

“You may choose which COVID-19 vaccine you receive as a booster shot,” reads the CDC’s website. “CDC’s recommendations now allow for this type of mix and match dosing for booster shots.”

As of November, children ages 5-11 are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Find vaccine locations near you by visiting https://www.vaccines.gov or calling 800-232-0233.

COVID-19 resources

By KiMi Robinson | Arizona Republic

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