SALEM — There’s a world of difference between this Thanksgiving and last. A year ago, Oregon was deep into its third COVID-19 surge, vaccinations hadn’t yet started and Gov. Kate Brown limited celebratory gatherings to no more than six people, warning that violators could be fined up to $1,250.
This Thanksgiving, Oregonians 12 and older have had ample opportunity to get vaccinated, and first shots for children ages 5 to 11 started earlier this month. About 62% of the population is fully vaccinated. The governor also has placed no limits on the size of gatherings between family and friends.
“We’re in a completely different spot than we were last year,” said Carlos Crespo, professor at the Oregon Health & Science University and Portland State University School of Public Health.
But Crespo and other experts in Oregon and across the nation caution: Now is not the time to be complacent, given that COVID-19 cases have been climbing in at least three dozen states and infections are up 33% nationwide over the past two weeks, as of Friday, Nov. 19.
Will Oregon be next?
Although the state’s infection rates have dropped 10% in the past two weeks, some experts worry another surge is likely as people gather to celebrate the holidays with multiple families and spend more time indoors in the colder weather. Waning immunity only adds to the problem.
Crespo is among public health experts, epidemiologists and other scientists who say there’s still a lot that people can do to try to lessen the severity of the next surge, if there indeed is one.
One of the most important actions you can take is asking everyone at your gathering to be fully vaccinated and, if eligible, to have gotten a booster shot.
“That should give you a sense of relief that you didn’t have last year,” Crespo said.
Even though vaccinated people can still spread the virus that causes COVID-19, data shows unvaccinated people are five to six times more likely to be infected by the virus than vaccinated people.
Getting everyone vaccinated might be impossible for families with younger children, because children younger than 5 have yet to receive the green light for shots. And although the federal government authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for ages 5-11 earlier this month, no one in that age group has had enough time to become fully inoculated. Research shows Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine doesn’t offer robust protection against the delta variant until two weeks after the second shot.
What can you do?
Among other recommended safety measures, even for get-togethers of fully vaccinated people:
Limit exposure: Consider asking guests to avoid contact with others outside their households in the three — but ideally five to seven days — leading up to the gathering. If you must be around others you don’t live with, be extra careful by wearing a well-fitted, high-quality mask. These steps will limit exposure to the virus.
“If you go to a really crowded gathering just a few days before you go off to visit Grandma — not great,” said Dr. Tom Jeanne, deputy state epidemiologist at the Oregon Health Authority.
If you travel by air: Remember the importance of properly wearing a quality mask not just on the airplane, where air filtration tends to be good, but on public ground transportation to and from or in packed airports and in lines. Try to avoid eating or drinking, especially in crowded situations, so you don’t have to remove your mask. The same goes for train and bus travel.
Rapid tests: Add an extra layer of protection by asking attendees to take a home rapid antigen test just before attending the gathering. The tests typically cost $10 to $12 each at pharmacies, grocery stores and online. But be warned, they might be in short supply due to increasing demand over the holiday season.
Ventilation: The World Health Organization has recommended a benchmark of six air changes per hour. But many homes don’t accomplish even one air change in an hour. So it’s smart to open a window or crack the door, which can make a difference. Turning on kitchen and bathroom fans, which suck indoor air out also can improve the flow.
HEPA air purifiers: If you’ve got them, use them. They can do wonders in helping to sift viruses out of the air.
Gather outdoors: This isn’t a particularly comfortable option in late November in many parts of Oregon, given the cool, wet temperatures. But even if you don’t dine out on the back deck, you don’t need to spend all your time indoors. Getting out for a walk and some fresh air is a good way to spend time together.
Bow out if sick: No one should attend a holiday get-together if they have coldlike symptoms, feel fatigued or otherwise are feeling unwell.
Get your flu shot: We’re talking about COVID-19 here, right? But getting your flu shot lessens the likelihood that you’ll get the flu and have to skip the get-together. While it’s too late for a flu vaccination to take full effect by Thanksgiving, it’s not too late for holiday gatherings later in the season.
Masks and social distancing: While masks and social distancing might seem like a real holiday downer, these two measures can significantly reduce transmission. That’s particularly true if there are unvaccinated people at your gathering. Some experts say wearing masks and physical distancing isn’t necessary for the fully vaccinated, especially if everyone is younger with no underlying medical conditions.
Keep it small: The smaller the gathering, the less risk.
“I think it’s important to understand there is some risk of transmission from vaccinated people,” Jeanne said. “If you’re at a small private gathering, the risk is very low.”
But keeping it small is likely a piece of advice many won’t heed. Nationwide, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that nearly half of adults said they plan to attend a holiday gathering with 10 or more people.
How do you know you’re taking enough precautions? That really depends on your circumstances.
“People ask me about their gatherings, whether they should do this or that,” said Peter Graven, a data scientist at Oregon Health & Science University. He puts out a weekly COVID-19 forecast. “Unfortunately, none of this stuff is certain. So you want to minimize your risk as much as you can. But there again, you can have a good bit of faith in the science of the vaccine.”
Are we nuts?
For some extra help determining how safe your get-together will be, try The New York Times’ interactive questionnaire: “We’re Having a Holiday Gathering. Are We Nuts?”
Experts say when mulling the precautions you’ll employ, prioritize your most vulnerable family members and friends. Even if they are vaccinated, their bodies might not have produced the same immune response as younger, healthier people.
Also, consider your community’s transmission rates or the rates in areas where your guests live. A transmission tracker created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows COVID-19 is spreading at “substantial” or “high” rates in 34 of Oregon’s 36 counties. Even so, rates in some parts of the U.S. such as Michigan, New Mexico and New Hampshire are more than triple what they are in Oregon.
Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, told a legislative committee last week he’s concerned Oregonians are letting their guard down. Daily reported infections and hospitalizations still are higher than any time during the state’s spring surge.
“It’s dangerous to start thinking and acting like the pandemic is over or is ending,” Allen said. “We’re still at very, very high caseloads. Our hospitals continue to be at 90% or more of capacity. One in five Oregonians is completely unprotected from the virus, having neither been exposed nor vaccinated.”
How are the experts celebrating this Thanksgiving?Crespo, the OHSU-PSU professor, said he’s planning to get together with some local relatives who will all travel by car. Including himself, he expects about eight people, all fully vaccinated, at the table. They’ll probably open some windows and “have the nice dinner we couldn’t have last year.”
Later, he plans to travel to Arecibo, Puerto Rico, where he’ll visit his mother, who’s fully vaccinated with a booster. Crespo said he’ll be careful with a good mask while in the airport and on the plane. He said he feels comfortable with his destination because virtually every eligible adult in the city is inoculated.
That’s had a noticeable benefit. Crespo said his mother had to recently visit the hospital for a non-COVID-19 ailment, and his brother asked staff about isolating her away from the coronavirus patients.
“The answer from the doctor was ‘We have zero COVID-19 cases here in the hospital,’” Crespo said.
Jeanne, the deputy state epidemiologist, said he’ll celebrate Thanksgiving with a “very small” get-together with friends. They’ll open a window and fire up an HEPA air purifier.
“It’ll be all vaccinated people,” Jeanne said. “Nobody with symptoms.”
Graven, the OHSU data scientist, said he’s still hashing out plans. But he’s thinking of sharing the holiday with one other family. Only one person, a school-aged child, will be partially vaccinated. Everyone else has had a full course of shots.
“Our normal Thanksgiving would probably be like 30 people,” Graven said, “and this is going to be like eight.”