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What will Thanksgiving be like this year? Experts weigh on how to celebrate safely

The coronavirus vaccines have changed the way we look at the pandemic — and they can make a positive impact on holiday gatherings.
Many experts said that if people are fully vaccinated, they can enjoy a somewhat normal Thanksgiving. TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

In 2020, experts urged those celebrating Thanksgiving to wear masks, move events outdoors, and keep it small.

This year, doctors are highlighting the importance of vaccination for all eligible people. Being fully immunized against the coronavirus protects against contracting the virus, and significantly lowers the risk of severe illness or death.

Many experts said that if people are fully vaccinated, they can enjoy a somewhat normal Thanksgiving.

Experts stress the importance of vaccination

Dr. Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, emphasized that getting vaccinated is the best way to have a safe Thanksgiving with few precautions — and there's just enough time now to get your shot, if you haven't already.

"The first thing to do is go out and get vaccinated right away," Althoff said. "This is the last week if you want an mRNA vaccine to be fully protecting you before Thanksgiving. ... The choice to be vaccinated, absolutely impacts your individual holiday experience."

People who are older or immunocompromised may not have the same immune response to the vaccine, leaving them vulnerable to contracting the virus even if they are fully vaccinated. If you are currently eligible for a booster shot, now is a great time to get that extra dose.

"If you need a booster, get a booster to get ready for the holidays," Althoff said. "I know a lot of grandparents out there who are totally ready to have a bigger holiday celebration with their grandchildren. Everybody should do their part to come to that gathering with as much immune protection as they can bring with them."

It can even help to start planning for the vaccination of younger children: The Food and Drug Administration is expected to review data from Pfizer-BioNTech about their version of the vaccine for kids aged 5 through 11 at the end of October. If all goes well, vaccines for kids in that age group could be available as soon as the first week of November. While there's no way to have kids fully vaccinated by Thanksgiving, Althoff said that having just one dose under their belt could make a difference.

"It's like one half step forward. You can't say your child has taken the full step of vaccination at Thanksgiving, because of the timing, but if you can get one dose prior to Thanksgiving, you'll also be all set for the December holidays," Althoff said. "Try thinking: 'We might need more mitigation strategies at (Thanksgiving) to ensure our children are safe and welcome, but that will change by the December holidays.' This is a moving target, but it's moving in the right direction."

Until kids are vaccinated, experts have said that the best thing adults can do to keep kids safe is get themselves and other eligible people vaccinated.

And remember, COVID-19 isn't the only virus out there: Make sure you're up-to-date on your flu vaccine if you're planning to travel or attend a large gathering.

Take appropriate precautions

If you aren't vaccinated, are having a large event with people of mixed vaccination status, or are just worried about spreading the virus, experts said there are a few different things you can do to keep Thanksgiving dinner safe.

Many of the precautions shouldn't be new: As always, distance and ventilation can help prevent COVID-19 from spreading. Wearing masks when indoors can prevent the spread of the virus, and keeping gatherings small or limited to just members of your household can also help.

"If people are unvaccinated, for whatever reason, including children under the age of 12, following the same protocols, as we followed in the past is still recommended," said Dr. Krystal Pollitt, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. "Make sure that if you are indoors, pay attention to ventilation within those spaces. Trying to open windows or put air cleaners in the space to enhance air exchange would also be beneficial."

Even if everyone at the event is vaccinated, it can help to take some minor precautions, like opening doors or windows for increased ventilation, to reduce the already-low risk of a breakthrough case. It's especially important to be mindful of these precautions if someone is immunocompromised or at higher risk for the virus.

"I think that there are opportunities to safely gather," said Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health. "I think that people are going to have to be able to think through the risks and think through who's going to be at the Thanksgiving table."

You can also get tested before gathering. Rapid tests return results in just a few minutes, while PCR tests can be more accurate. In some areas, at-home rapid tests are even an option, making it easy for people to make sure they aren't asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

"It might be worthwhile to consider testing before everybody really gathers, so that you add an additional layer of protection," Hirschwerk said.

As always, make sure you avoid attending any group gatherings if you are showing symptoms of COVID-19 or other illnesses.

Travel safely

Doctors are issuing fewer warnings against travel this year, but if you are traveling to a family gathering, make sure you take appropriate precautions on the way there.

"Following all CDC-related guidances is really important ... for your own safety and for that of the other travelers around you," said Pollitt.

Most airlines and other forms of public transit require masks. Make sure that whatever mask you wear fits well and fully covers your mouth and nose. When possible, keep distance from other passengers, and maintain proper hand hygiene.

Monitor symptoms after your gathering

Even when the holiday is over and you're back at home, keep an eye out for symptoms in yourself and family members. If you do believe you are showing signs of COVID-19 infection, get a test and alert those who you spent time with during the holiday.

By following these steps, experts believe it's possible to have a somewhat normal Thanksgiving.

"Taking care of the physical aspects of immunization and wearing a mask if you're in a crowded space or if you're traveling are important things to do, so that we can focus on those mental and emotional health needs and benefits from from reconnecting with people in a face to face environment," Althoff said. "... We want to have holidays again in a bigger way than what we've been able to in the past year."