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Covid overshadows Thanksgiving for pandemic-weary Americans

Families who stayed apart last year are gathering this time, despite the risk of another spike in infections.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC – Roughly 1,000 Americans are still dying every day from Covid-19. The United States reported a 28 per cent increase in the seven-day average of new Covid cases over the past two weeks, up to 95,000 a day.

These numbers do not exist in isolation. The rise of Covid cases – and increase in hospitalisations among vaccinated Americans whose immunity is believed to be wearing off, months after inoculation – comes as the US heads into Thanksgiving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unanimously endorsed Pfizer and Moderna boosters for all American adults, but only on 19 November, the Friday before the holiday. Families across the United States will travel to come together to share a meal with one another, and they will most likely be doing so indoors.

Last Thanksgiving, before vaccines were available, many Americans did indeed travel to be together – but the pandemic was still the main story in the country. This year, the US is at once still consumed by the pandemic but also getting back to a normal feeling. The pandemic isn’t necessarily the headline that makes it above the fold in the morning newspaper. Bars and restaurants are back open. In Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that she would lift the city’s mask mandate from 22 November.

“Many people are feeling done with Covid, and while we may feel done with Covid… Covid is not done with us,” said Anne Liu, a specialist in allergy and immunology and infectious disease at Stanford University.

While many people may feel safer or more secure because they have been vaccinated, vaccination in and of itself is not a guarantee. Liu suggested also keeping rapid tests around, as well as using masks “in a smart way” and staying outdoors where possible. (The rapid tests are particularly important, Liu said, since other respiratory viruses, which have symptoms similar to Covid, will also be passed around as Americans gather.)

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Furthermore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only authorised the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5-11 in late October. The vaccine is administered with two doses, three weeks apart, and maximum immunity sets in two weeks after the second dose – which means that the vast majority of children in the United States will not be fully protected by the vaccine (or, rather, as fully as the vaccine can protect them) at Thanksgiving.

What’s more, the immunocompromised remain at high risk despite being vaccinated – and may have family members who want and expect them to be at Thanksgiving, even if not everyone in the group has had the vaccine. In this case, Liu suggested, “people talk to the people they’re getting together with to have an open conversation about how concerned people are feeling”, instead of “making assumptions about other people’s threshold for accepting risk.”

I didn’t go home for Thanksgiving last year. My family didn’t assemble, even though my parents and siblings all live in New York City. All of us stayed in our respective homes.

I did a virtual yoga class in the morning. My husband and I pre-ordered a precooked meal from a nearby restaurant and ate that in the late afternoon. We had a FaceTime video call with my family after that, and then watched the original Miracle on 34th Street. It was a nice day. But it was also a sacrifice, albeit a small one, that we made to try to keep our families safe and move towards the end of the pandemic. I missed being with my family, but I knew how angry I would be with myself if I gave any one of them Covid.

This year, we’ll be together at Thanksgiving. We will do what Liu said. We are continuing to wear masks in grocery stores and pharmacies and on public transit to try to stay safe ahead of time. We will get tested before and after. Everyone who will be there is fully vaccinated. Still, I’m aware that I’m possibly contributing to what will almost certainly be a post-Thanksgiving rise in Covid cases.

That makes me feel guilty. It makes me feel angry. Mostly, though, it makes me feel sad. A thousand Americans are dying a day and it’s become so normal that it’s not the day’s main story anymore. I wonder whether we’ll even bring it up while we sit together around the Thanksgiving table, being grateful and nervous that we’re all together.

[See also: How a fourth Covid wave is crashing over Europe]

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