CDC warns America: Do not travel for Thanksgiving

Citing an "exponential growth" in COVID-19 cases, federal public health officials urge people to stay home.
/ Source: NBC News

Americans should avoid travel for Thanksgiving, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Thursday.

It was a last-minute attempt by the nation's leading public health agency to curb what's sure to be yet another dangerous spike in COVID-19 cases if families gather next week.

"In the last week, we've seen over a million new cases," Erin Sauber-Schatz, head of the CDC's Community Interventions and Critical Populations Task Force, said Thursday on a call with reporters. "Thanksgiving is a week away."

Still, the CDC stopped short of mandating that Americans refrain from traveling.

"It's not a requirement. It's a recommendation for the American public to consider," Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC's COVID-19 incident manager, said on the call. "Right now, especially as we're seeing this sort of exponential growth in cases, and the opportunity to translocate disease or infection from one part of the country to another, it leads to our recommendation to avoid travel at this time."

For Americans who do choose to travel, the CDC advised doing so as safely as possible, by following the same everyday recommendations from the agency, Walke said. Those include wearing a mask in public places and on public transportation, social distancing and washing hands frequently.

In updated guidance posted online Thursday, the agency also advises that anyone who has not lived in the household during the two weeks ahead of the holiday stay in a separate area of the house with a designated bathroom, if possible, and wear masks while indoors. That includes college students or members of the military returning home for the holidays.

Other CDC guidance for Thanksgiving includes:

  • Having guests bring their own food, drinks, plates and utensils,
  • Offering disposable food containers, as well as single-use salad dressings and condiment packets,
  • Avoiding congregating in the kitchen as much as possible,
  • Hosting gatherings outside with as few people as possible, and
  • Clearly explaining mitigation efforts with guests ahead of time.

But even spending the holiday nearby — like at a neighbor's house just down the street — can be risky, the CDC said.

There is no question that when multiple households gather, cases of COVID-19 rise dramatically. Spikes occurred after Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day.

Thanksgiving — the most heavily traveled holiday in the U.S. — is sure to follow suit. But the holiday is a particular challenge with the potential to be even more dangerous. Colder weather across much of the country means open-air gatherings are impractical and consistent mask use is impossible while eating and drinking. The holiday also comes as average daily cases in the U.S. are higher than at any point in the pandemic.

Also Thursday, three major medical organizations published an open letter to Americans, citing the recent surge in COVID-19 cases to urge precautions for the holidays.

"We are all weary and empathize with the desire to celebrate the holidays with family and friends," the letter, from the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association and the American Nurses Association said.

The groups added, "the record-shattering surge underway is resulting in uncontrolled community spread and infection that has already overburdened health systems in some areas and will ultimately consume capacity of our health care system and may reduce the availability of care in many places in our country."

Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who was not involved with the letter, acknowledged the weariness that Americans are facing.

"As much as we get tired of this virus, the virus is insatiable," he said.

"Monsters don't stop for breaks in horror movies," Gonsenhauser warned. "It's not going to happen now, either."

This story was originally published on NBC News.