The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly urged Americans Thursday not to travel for Thanksgiving, in one of its sharpest warnings to date, as an official said the agency is alarmed by the exponential growth in Covid-19 cases, as well as rising hospitalizations and deaths.
With the pandemic in its 11th month in the U.S., many families are grappling with whether to meet up with friends or family for traditional celebrations. About 50 million Americans are expected to travel in the coming days, which is traditionally the busiest travel period of the year.
But the holiday comes at a particularly precarious time in the current virus surge, and doctors and government officials say even gathering with one other household is too much of a risk.
“Covid-19 is turning out to be quite a formidable foe,” Henry Walke, the incident manager for the agency’s Covid-19 response, said in a briefing with reporters. “We must unite in our efforts against this virus and now more than ever, not let down our guard.”
The U.S. reported 170,161 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, the second highest daily toll of the pandemic and well more than double the number of daily cases reported at the height of the summertime surge.
Hospitalizations and ICU admissions continue to set new records, taxing health-care systems in Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and elsewhere. Covid-19 deaths crossed the quarter-million mark Wednesday, with 50,000 new deaths in just the past two months.
More than one million people were diagnosed with Covid-19 between Nov. 5 and 13, according to the CDC. It took 96 days for the U.S. to log 1 million cases last spring, though testing was less readily available then.
The CDC said it is concerned about Covid-19 transmission during gatherings, as well as at transportation hubs where people might crowd to get on a bus or plane. An infected traveler could inadvertently spread the virus to an older family member or someone with an underlying condition, such as diabetes, that puts them at risk of severe illness, Dr. Walke said.
“The tragedy that could happen is that one of your family members, from coming together in this family gathering, actually could end up being hospitalized and severely ill and die,” he said. “We certainly don’t want to see that happen.”
While two vaccines have now proven effective against the virus, it will be some time before they are available, so people will have to continue to protect themselves by wearing masks and taking other measures, Dr. Walke said.
The CDC isn’t a regulatory agency, so doesn’t have the power to impose a nationwide no-travel mandate. But Dr. Walke called the agency’s guidance to avoid Thanksgiving travel “a strong recommendation.”
He made his comments during one of only a handful of news briefings the agency has held about Covid-19 over the past nine months.
Public-health officials’ warnings have taken on a more urgent tone in recent weeks, shifting from officials discouraging travel and large gatherings to outright pleading with the public to stay put and stay away from others.
Leaders in states including New York, New Jersey and Michigan have put limits on the size of gatherings in recent days, identifying one culprit of the latest surge as small, seemingly innocuous get-togethers. As community spread becomes prevalent, though, even those more muted festivities, like a baby shower or brunch, are potentially fatal.
“Getting together with your family via Zoom to ensure your loved ones stay safe is the right thing to do,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said in a video message posted online Tuesday. In the message, Mr. Beshear joined six Republican and Democratic Midwestern governors to emphasize the current threat and urge people to take precautions.
Last year, around 55 million Americans traveled for Thanksgiving. AAA forecast a 10% decline in holiday travel this year, to 50.6 million. Air travel is expected to drop by half—but that still means about 2.4 million people making their way through airports.
“For the holidays, I do really worry that people just don’t understand how serious it is right now,” said Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist and professor at George Mason University. “What we’re seeing in the U.S. is basically uncontrolled growth in cases.”
United Airlines Holdings Inc., Southwest Airlines Co. and other carriers have reported slower bookings and an uptick in cancellations in recent days, suggesting some Americans are heeding the warnings but adding further pressure to an already beleaguered airline industry.
James Lawler, an infectious-disease physician and executive director at the Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said he hopes the real threat of turning patients away from emergency rooms as hospitals reach capacity in coming weeks would make people change their behaviors—but he isn’t optimistic. “I wish I had that same confidence in that that I had six months ago,” he said.
“The data’s becoming very clear,” said Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer for University of Southern California Student Health, noting that a major cause of the recent surge in cases is small gatherings and, particularly, “indoor environments where people are eating, drinking and talking loudly with their face coverings off.”
Something that looks a lot like a family meal.
Widespread pandemic fatigue has led some Americans to grow tired of adhering to effective prevention strategies, adding to officials’ concern about group events.
“It is a tough message. And it’s tough because people think that you’re infringing on their family or their rights,” said Randy Evetts, the public-health director in Pueblo County, Colo. “But really, we’re trying to protect their families or their co-workers or others from the spread.” Last week, the county shifted into a more restrictive tier established by the state due to growing infections.
“People get bored. But the virus doesn’t get bored,” said George Rutherford, an epidemiology professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “Put off gratification a little while longer.”
Thanksgiving gatherings should be limited to members of the same household, the CDC said, defining that as people who have lived together for the most recent 14 days before Thanksgiving.
If two households are going to celebrate together, Dr. Rutherford recommends they do so outside and at two separate tables. No buffets, either. And masks should go back on right after the final bite.
President-elect Joe Biden said Monday that public-health officials he had consulted recommended Thanksgiving gatherings of five people, and certainly not more than 10.
“Let’s save lives,” said Mr. Biden. “I just want to make sure that we’re able to be together next Thanksgiving, next Christmas.”
Many people do intend to stay home. Recipes for more modest Thanksgiving dinners, even “Thanksgiving for Two,” are proliferating on the internet.
Some colleges and universities have ramped up Covid-19 testing ahead of the holiday, encouraging students to check if they are contagious before getting on planes and bringing the virus home with them. The University of Arizona conducted 34% more tests in the week ended Nov. 13 than it did in the prior-week period, promoting what it is calling a “testing blitz.” The State University of New York system is requiring all on-campus students—about 140,000 people—to be tested within 10 days before their departures.
Many are shifting to online instruction for the final stretch of fall semester, then administering finals remotely rather than bring students back to campus.
The CDC said that families who have college students returning home should take precautions such as wearing masks, keeping socially distanced, and washing hands frequently. Others who travel for the holiday should take these same precautions, the agency said.
The Montgomery County Board of Health in Pennsylvania voted last week to shift public and private schools to virtual learning through Dec. 6, allowing a weeklong buffer after Thanksgiving that could limit the spread of infections in classrooms after any gatherings.
“We know people are going to get together, even though they shouldn’t,” said Barbara Wadsworth, a member of the county’s board of health and the chief nursing officer at Main Line Health, a hospital system in the Philadelphia suburbs.
The decision wasn’t popular with local parents, but Ms. Wadsworth said it was necessary. “We felt like this was what we should do,” she said. “It’s a short-term intervention that might have some very long, sustaining, positive effects.”