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The Thanksgiving COVID time bomb

Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are at new peaks, cities and states are weighing second lockdowns, and flu season is upon us — but we're all looking the other way.

Why it matters: Pandemic fatigue has set in and the nation has collectively stopped caring just in time for the holiday season. This Thanksgiving could be catastrophic for public health.

Compare April's Zoom seders with the in-person Thanksgiving dinners being planned all across the country.

  • The number of Americans driving or flying this Thanksgiving will be in the tens of millions, per AAA (though travel will be down from 2019). According to CBS, the Transportation Security Administration expects to screen six million travelers this holiday.
  • Canceled spring proms and graduations have been replaced with fall birthday bashes.
  • The same cities that closed down within days in March are now waffling over shutdowns when case counts are more than double what they were then.

The big picture: "The incoming holidays have the potential to be a real, serious problem in terms of facilitating transmission," says William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

  • Student cross-country travel also has the potential to drive up cases. Of the students who are going home for Thanksgiving, 49% plan to socially distance but not quarantine at home, and 24% plan to take no measures at all, according to new polling from Generation Lab.
  • 59% of students plan to return to campus after the holidays.

Flashback: The Fourth of July and Labor Day sparked travel and new regional coronavirus outbreaks, and that was with the ability to comfortably congregate outdoors.

  • Another warning for Americans: Canadian Thanksgiving, which took place on Oct. 11, spurred countrywide case spikes there.

It's tiring for people to worry all the time, says Meredith Matson, a psychology professor at Horry-Georgetown Technical College. "As the novelty of this wears off, that fatigue starts to rise."

  • On top of that, the virus is competing for attention. The election and the holidays have been a distraction, especially for those who have not experienced a loss or a layoff, she says. "There are people who are fortunate enough, who have not had this affect them directly in a way that has forced them to take notice."
  • Selective hearing also plays role as people hear differing information on what's safe and what's not from their friends, their television sets and their president.
  • "If I want to have my family down for Thanksgiving, then I can go looking for peers and news sources and authorities who confirm what I want."

The bottom line: If Americans do plan to move forward with hosting out-of-town relatives or travel, they can take multiple precautions to reduce spread, per the CDC:

  • Quarantining for two weeks or getting a coronavirus test does not excuse people from other mitigation practices like avoiding close contact and crowds, or wearing masks.
  • Even if family members are comfortable with flying or driving, it is ill advised to visit cities experiencing current surges.
  • Ventilation is essential if being indoors is inevitable.
  • Consider your home state's travel or quarantine restrictions upon returning home.

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