People plan to attend large holiday gatherings, despite rising COVID-19 cases, survey finds

Despite repeated warnings from public health officials about the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19 during large Thanksgiving gatherings, plenty of people say they still plan to meet up as usual anyway.

That’s the major takeaway from a new survey from the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. The survey, which polled more than 2,000 people on their holiday plans, found that 40 percent intend to be part of a holiday gathering with more than 10 people. A third of the study participants also say they don’t plan to ask guests to wear a mask.

“We really wanted to get a better sense of how people were planning on approaching the holidays and how seriously they were taking precautions and calls from public health leaders across the country to avoid gathering in groups,” Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient experience officer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who works on the survey, tells Yahoo Life.

Gonsenhauser says the findings are “not surprising,” pointing out that people have been grappling with COVID-19 restrictions for the better part of 2020. “There is significant COVID fatigue gripping the nation, and there has also been a lot of irresponsible misinformation circulated and directed toward people to undermine the public health and health care direction,” he says.

While this was just one survey, plenty of people have expressed similar sentiments online, with some even bragging of their large holiday plans.

Tripadvisor also recently shared results of a survey that found more than half of Americans plan to travel for Thanksgiving. Only 22 percent of those surveyed say they intend to stay at a hotel or vacation rental to help practice social distancing from family and friends.

Gathering in groups to celebrate the holiday defies recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which urges people to stay home and celebrate with just their household this year. According to the CDC, having a small dinner with just the people in your household is considered “lower risk,” while having a small outdoor dinner with family and friends in your community is “moderate risk.” The agency classifies attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household as “higher risk.”

“Holiday celebrations will likely need to be different this year to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the CDC says online. “Avoid activities that are higher risk for spread.”

Some public officials have requested that local residents avoid gathering with people outside their household for Thanksgiving. The state of California, for example, has banned gatherings of more than three households. The mayor of Chicago just released a stay-at-home advisory that urges residents to leave home only to go to work or school, or for essential needs like going to the grocery store or pharmacy.

Chicago residents should also “not have guests in their homes unless they are essential workers, cancel traditional Thanksgiving celebrations and avoid travel,” the advisory says.

All of this raises a big question: What can happen?

The U.S. is already seeing record daily case counts of COVID-19, and it will only get worse if people gather in large groups for the holiday, Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life.

Watkins says he anticipates “even more spread, leading to increased hospitalizations and deaths.” Hospital systems could also get overwhelmed, he says.

“I suspect we’ll see a significant uptick in the week or so after Thanksgiving,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, agrees. “So many people now are throwing their masks and caution aside,” he says. “This is going to happen over the holidays, starting with Thanksgiving, and I’m worried that people are not going to be careful enough.”

If you’re planning to spend the holiday with people who are already in your “bubble,” Adalja says your risk of contracting the virus shouldn’t be much greater than it normally is. But moving beyond that is risky, he says.

If you and your family plan to gather as usual anyway, Adalja recommends taking these steps to try to lower risk:

  • Try to seat households together.

  • Do your best to keep households six feet apart.

  • Encourage masks.

  • Check in with everyone on the day of to make sure no one has symptoms of COVID-19.

  • Be mindful of your contacts now. “You want to decrease contacts and close your circle,” Adalja says.

Schaffner urges people to take COVID-19 seriously, especially if they have vulnerable members of their family. “We need to have reduced numbers at Thanksgiving this year so that we can have a more normal Thanksgiving next year,” he says. “We want to protect older people and vulnerable family members so they are indeed with us next year.”

Overall, Schaffner recommends people keep this in mind: “This year we want to give thanks. We don’t want to give the virus.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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