Thanksgiving and COVID-19: Testing, quarantining and how to celebrate more safely

With the novel coronavirus spreading more rapidly, and Thanksgiving just a few weeks away, many

With the novel coronavirus spreading more rapidly, and Thanksgiving just a few weeks away, many Seattle Times readers have asked us about testing, quarantining and whether some combination of the two could make a holiday celebration safer.

Assessing your level of risk usually includes a look at how prevalent the virus is where you live. Washington state and the nation both set records this week for daily counts of coronavirus infections. On Wednesday, the United States topped 100,000 new cases in a day for the first time, and Washington confirmed 1,469 additional cases, far surpassing its previous daily high. As of 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, 112,550 people in Washington had contracted the virus, including 2,431 who have died of COVID-19. You can track what’s happening in your county at

For this week’s installment of FAQ Friday, we’re answering questions about SARS-CoV-2 testing, when to get tested and how long to quarantine after being exposed to a person with the virus.

How long does someone exposed to the virus need to quarantine? Do you still need to quarantine if you test negative?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has quarantine guidelines for a variety of scenarios.

The baseline advice — even for those who test negative — is to stay home for two weeks after your last known contact with someone who has the coronavirus. These guidelines apply for people who have potentially been exposed outside their home or by someone with whom they live.

If you’re quarantining due to contact with someone you live with who has the virus, and you have close contact with the infected person again, you should start your two-week quarantine clock over, according to the CDC.

Quarantining isn’t possible within every household. The CDC suggests that those who can’t avoid being in close contact with people they live with need to avoid people outside their home and quarantine for 14 days after the infected person has finished their quarantine.

Are there safe ways to celebrate Thanksgiving? What if I quarantine and get tested beforehand?

Public health officials recommend avoiding holiday gatherings, especially if you’re considered high-risk.

Consider having virtual Thanksgiving and “Friendsgiving” celebrations with your wider circle. You can schedule a Zoom toast to share a moment of gratitude, send a touch-of-home care package themed to the holiday, cook the same recipes in your respective homes, play a favorite family game online — get creative and be intentional.

The next-safest way to do Thanksgiving this year is to keep it inside your pandemic bubble. But if you are dead-set on celebrating with people outside your household or bubble, there are some things to consider to keep you and others safer than you might otherwise be.

The state Department of Health (DOH) has a safety checklist that runs through some steps you can take before and during the get-together.

First, keep any gathering small. Check the rules for gatherings in your county under Washington’s Safe Start reopening plan. In King County, gatherings are limited to no more than five people outside your household per week.

Consider bundling up and gathering outdoors. If that’s not an option, keeping windows open is the next best thing; the coronavirus spreads much more easily in indoor spaces with poor ventilation.

It’s also prudent to quarantine for 14 days then get a coronavirus test, Dr. Emily Landon, an associate professor of medicine and infectious disease expert at the University of Chicago, told The New York Times.

“You have to lower your risk, then test,” she said.

What type of test should I get, and when?

There are numerous places to get tested for the coronavirus in Western Washington.

The most common and reliable tests are molecular tests, also called PCR tests. These are the tests being done at drive-thru testing sites and clinics where a person’s nose is swabbed. Most test results come back in a couple of days.

“The tests are most sensitive five to eight days after exposure,” Landon told The New York Times. “And they’re not perfect. The faster they are, generally speaking, the least likely they are to be accurate.”

A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that, in the four days before symptoms appear, the chances of a false negative range from 100% the day after contracting the virus to 67% on the fourth day.

Antigen tests are becoming more common. These rapid tests can show results within five to 15 minutes. But there is a trade-off to having quick results.

“What everyone wants is for a test to be cheap, accurate and fast,” Geoffrey Baird, a laboratory medicine specialist at UW Medicine, told Science Magazine. “You can only ever have two of those.”

Some reports put the false-negative results for rapid antigen tests at 50%, whereas false negatives for PCR tests have topped out around 37%.

Information from The Dallas Morning News is included in this report.

If you have a question you haven’t seen addressed in The Seattle Times’ coverage, ask it at or via the form below.

Do you have questions about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19?

Ask in the form below and we’ll dig for answers. If you’re using a mobile device and can’t see the form on this page, ask your question here.

If you have specific medical questions, please contact your doctor.

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